Why Facebook Clearly Belongs in the 10X Revenue Club

Posted on February 1, 2012. Filed under: Facebook, Internet, IPO, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , |

Attached are my thoughts on the Facebook S-1 along with some quick stabs at valuation.  Brief disclosure, Benchmark Capital has a minority position in Facebook as a result of the acquisition of FriendFeed, a company that was incubated in our offices.

I thought it would be useful to look at Facebook using the scorecard from our May 24 blog post, “All Revenue is Not Created Equal, the Keys to the 10X Revenue Club.” For those that want to save time, the key point of this piece is that there is a broad disparity of Price/Revenue multiples for global Internet stocks, and that only a very small fraction of these companies achieve a multiple over 10X. We also created a list of 10 factors that public investors consider when trying to qualify if a company is deserved of such a prestigious and lofty valuation.

On a roll, these factors are:

1. Sustainable Competitive Advantage – how big is the competitive Moat?
2. Presence of Network Effects – does the model tip to a single vendor?
3. Visibility/Predictability – is the revenue consistent
4. Customer Lock-in / High Switching Costs – is it expensive to leave?
5. Gross margin levels – How much leverage exists is the business?
6. Marginal Profitability Calculation – is the leverage still expanding?
7. Customer Concentration – are there key dependencies?
8. Major Partner Dependencies – are there key dependencies here as well?
9. Organic Demand vs. Marketing Spend – is customer acquisition expensive?
10. Growth – how big will the future be?

So how does Facebook score on these metrics? As you would expect, pretty well.

Metric: Comments: Grade:
Sustainable Competitive Advantage It would be extremely hard to launch a direct-on competitor to Facebook.  Look at what has happened to Friendster, MySpace, Bebo, and is happening to Orkut in Brazil.  Google+ as a FB competitor is a tough slog. A+
Presence of Network Effects These are about as strong as you could design. All current non-US Facebook users have immediate connections if they log-in. A+
Visibility/Predictability This is fairly strong as well, simply because there is no lumpiness.  There is a small dependency on Zynga that could cause variability. Also, a premium product would offer more consistency than pure ads.  That said, this is not an issue. A
Customer Lock-In / Switching Costs Leaving Facebook is possible, but finding an alternative with all your friends on it is not really possible.  Obviously, the inclusion of Timeline works to increase this even more by creating a permanent dependence on past content. Also, Facebook’s DAU number is staggering. Over half of all users check-in daily. That is uber lock-in. A+
Gross Margin Levels Gross margin has hovered between 75-80% for the last several quarters.  This is a fantastic overall gross margin. It would be great to think they have more leverage here, but as the largest Internet site in the world, this probably represents peak margins. A
Marginal Profitability Calculation On this one Facebook doesn’t score so well.  Peak profitability (on a margin % basis) was in Q4 of 2010, and since then spending has kept pace with revenue growth. It is likley that the team would argue they are “investing for the long-term,” but if the long term is forever, than EPS growth is permanently tied to revenue growth. B-
Customer Concentration Zynga is 12% of revenues, but this is fairly low and they are the only company over 10%. Plus, if Zynga stopped competing for these ad purchases, there are many, many Zynga look-alikes that would rush to fill that void. So even if they left tomorrow (which they won’t) the number would not go away completely. A
Partner Dependency Facebook has grown to be the largest site in the world with the help of no one. No partners. No dependency. A+
Organic Demand All of Facebook’s customers are organic. This is as good as it gets.  The pure stuff. A+
Growth Facebook grew the top line 88% in 2011. That’s quite amazing. Q4 of 2011, however, was only 55%.  People will definitely be watching this number in Q1. If growth rate hurts the company, then it’s a direct result of waiting too long to go public – past peak growth. B

The bottom line is that these scores are fantastic. Facebook is a shoe-in for the 10X+ revenue club. Perhaps the only question is which years’ revenue you consider. If the company grows 50-60% in 2012, you end up with roughly $5.5-6B in revenue. With all the hype, assume a 12x multiple on the $6, and you end up right at $72B. You can double-check this with earnings. As operating margin is stable, 60% growth would result in $1.6B in after-tax earnings. At $72B, this is a 45 PE ratio for a company growing at 60%. At a 60 PE, you would have a $96B market capitalization. The bottom line is that the banker range looks right to me. Of course, overt and ecstatic demand for the hottest IPO of the past 10 years could easily lead to much higher speculative valuations. But it’s hard to argue that the $70-100B range is wrong. Feels quite right to me.

Here are a few other interesting things from the S-1:

  1. Tax Rate. Warren Buffet’s secretary would be happy. Facebook’s tax rate is already north of 40%. Other multi-national companies typically have found a way to reduce this. Facebook is paying full-boat.
  2. Model appears set. With gross margin relatively fixed, and peak operating margins over 5 quarter ago, investors should get comfortable that bottom-line growth is limited by top line growth. Management could change their attitude later, but experience suggests that founders like Zuckenburg want to invest for the long term. As a result, one shouldn’t expect these super healthy margins to go any higher.
  3. Sales > R&D. It is somewhat surprising that sales expense is greater than R&D expense. The ad units clearly are not self-serve. Interestingly, this ratio is very similar for Google.
  4. Seasonality. The company has more seasonality than I would have expected (geared towards Q4). The prospectus says this is tied to traditional advertising seasonality.
  5. Facebook’s unique RSU program. In an effort to avoid the restrictions of 409A, Facebook long ago created an RSU structure whose shares vest on a liquidity event.  As a result, a large amount of stock (close to $1B in value) will all “vest” on the IPO. This will result in an enormous one-time, non-cash charge. What I still can’t figure out, is how this will effect the overall share count. If you know let me know, and I will append the post. If auditors and the SEC are happy with this RSU structure, I would expect to see other startups adopt it, as it avoids the restrictions of 409A.
  6. Cash. Over $3.9B in cash already. And they will raise $5B more. That’s a lot of cash.

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You Don’t Have to Tweet to Twitter

Posted on November 15, 2011. Filed under: advertising, Facebook, Internet, IPO, social networking, Twitter, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , , , , |

Frequent comparisons to Facebook leave many confused about the true value of Twitter.

[Follow Me on Twitter]

“In a brand new direction
A change of perception
On a brand new trajection”
UB40

[Disclosure: Benchmark Capital is a major investor in Twitter, and my partner Peter Fenton sits on the Twitter BOD.]

Twitter is having a remarkable year. Active users have soared to over 100 million per month, with daily actives now above 50 million. Tweets per day are over 250 million. Most top actors, athletes, and artists are all active on Twitter. Every news and sports program proudly advertises its Twitter account handle. No one would consider running for public office without a strong Twitter presence. Global news in any region breaks first and spreads fast on Twitter. Even uber-socialist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has 2.24 million followers (which puts him slightly behind Mandy Moore, but just ahead of Queen Latifah).

So, Twitter’s traffic has been growing in leaps and bounds. It has become an indispensable tool for managing personal and corporate brands. And Twitter, along with its verb form “tweet”, have become words in everyday usage all over the world. Yet despite these impressive strides, Twitter’s upside is far, far greater and its user base will expand by an order of magnitude – as soon as the service can overcome a major perception problem.

Twitter suffers from two key misperceptions that need to be resolved before the business can reach its true potential. The first misperception is that Twitter is simply another social network, like Facebook. People commonly think of Twitter as a variant of Facebook. The press frequently positions the two together as “leaders in social networking.” This pairing erroneously implies that the two services are used for the exact same thing, even though the two platforms are very different. Facebook is a few-to-few communication network designed for sharing information and life events with friends. Twitter, on the other hand, is a one-to-many information broadcast network. The only way magic happens on Facebook is through reciprocity: I friend you and you friend me back – then information flows. But on Twitter, I can get something out of following Shaquile O’Neil who has no social obligation to follow me back.

As its roots are in communication, a key part of the Facebook value proposition is sharing information. Any potential anxiety with regards to Facebook sharing is reduced by the fact that these communications are generally seen only by one’s friends. In fact, users react quite negatively when this information is unknowingly shared more broadly. For the people who view Twitter as a Facebook variant, they immediately assume the platform’s core purpose is for the user to broadcast his or her own thoughts and personal information (like Facebook), but to a much broader public audience. For those with this perception, the notion of potentially exposing their own private thoughts to the broad public Internet is overwhelming and uninteresting.

The second, and more critical, Twitter misperception is that you need to tweet, to have something to say and broadcast, for the service to be meaningful to you. For many non-Twitter users, Twitter is an intimidating proposition. “Why would I tweet?,” and “…but I don’t want to tweet” are two common refrains from the non-adopter that highlight this key misperception. But this completely misses the point as to why Twitter has become such an amazingly powerful Internet destination for 100 million others. For the vast majority of Twitter’s next 900 million users, the core usage modality will have very little to do with “tweeting,” and everything to do with “listening” or “hearing.”

Twitter is an innovative and remarkable information service. While it is amazingly democratic and allows literally anyone to broadcast publicly as a “tweeter,” the core value in today’s Twitter is the amazing flow of curated and customized information that emanates from its crowd-sourced user feeds. Other Internet networks like to keep the user “inside.” Much like Google, Twitter points out to the world. It’s a “discovery engine” and an “information utility” rolled into one. With Twitter, you get news faster, you see updates from your favorite artists, you hear directly from key politicians, and gain insights from influencers in a wide variety of specializations. Just as Facebook is symmetric in terms of its poster-reader relationship, Twitter is highly asymmetric. The majority of the tweets on Twitter are posted by a small sub-set of the users. And the majority of the users get value from “reading” or “listening” to the tweets from these core influencers. Once again, for most users it’s more about what you hear, learn, and find than the fact that you can tweet.

In many ways, Twitter is much more of a competitor to other “discovery tools” and “information sources” than it is to Facebook. Facebook is unquestionably the number one resource for “sharing with the people in your life.” From this perspective, Facebook competes (extremely well) with email, instant messengers, and certainly other symmetric social networks like MySpace. Twitter, on the other hand, competes most directly with other tools that help you find important links, news, and information. It is in this broad, non-friend based crowd-sourcing and speed of discovery where Twitter truly shines. A recent Tweet by famed sci-fi author William Gibson highlights this point. Having become accustomed to the non-linear speed of information flow on Twitter, Gibson grew frustrated watching news of the Osama bin Laden killing on TV: “Network news feels like trying to suck cold tar through a milkshake straw.

Some who understand this point have suggested that Twitter is merely a “Better RSS reader.” While this analogy is directionally more accurate than the Facebook comparison, it greatly underestimates the power and value of Twitter. RSS feeds are simply computerized information “routers” that require complex setup, initialization, and maintenance. Twitter has three breakthroughs that make it dramatically more powerful than simple RSS. First and foremost, your personalized Twitter feed is human-curated by a potential universe of millions of curators. When you “check Twitter” you are looking at the specific articles and links purposefully chosen by people you have chosen to follow. That is powerful leverage. Second, it is easily extensible. Due primarily to the concept of “retweeting,” the simple act of using Twitter exposes you to new and interesting sources to follow. It evolves into a richer and more customized offering over time. You discover new people as well as new information. Lastly, Twitter’s unique handles and follower networks create a strong-form network effect that has high lock-in and high switching costs. Twitter and its top tweeters have a deeply symbiotic relationship.

So what can Twitter do to solve this misperception problem? The first thing they can fix is the new user registration flow, a process that has already begun. Earlier this year, a new user would be encouraged to “tweet” very early in the registration process, basically reinforcing the perception problem. Today’s “first 60-second” Twitter experience is quite different and revolves around choosing the influencers you will follow. You should expect even more evolution in this direction in the future. Next, Twitter must make it crystal clear to the press and prospective user that there is an amazingly powerful value proposition for non-broadcasting users. This will not be easy, as it requires a reprogramming of perception across a broad audience. Not only will this aid in incremental adoption, but it will also help subdue the confusion with respect to Facebook.

Twitter is on an amazing trajectory and will continue to increase in usage and influence.  However, the power of this discovery platform is much more about the tweets themselves, and not simply about every single user having the ability to tweet.

[Follow Me on Twitter]

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How To Monetize a Social Network: MySpace and Facebook Should Follow TenCent

Posted on March 9, 2009. Filed under: advertising, casual games, Internet, social networking, Uncategorized, video, Virtual Goods | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

“Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay”

                  — Lou Reed, Walk on the Wild Side

The consensus seems to be that social networks have a monetization problem.  On this topic, both the leading technology industry blogs and the world’s top news organizations agree.  The problem is not that these sites have no revenue.   I “guesstimate” that MySpace and Facebook have annual revenue run-rates of approximately $650mm and $450mm respectively – highly reputable numbers.  The perceived problem relates directly to revenue per user or page view, as these are two of the most heavily trafficked sites on the Internet.  As a comparison, other companies with similar usage, like Yahoo, are doing $7.2B in annual revenues.  When reporting earnings from Q4 of 2007, Google also opined on the difficulty in monetizing social networking sites.  Sergey Brin noted, “I don’t think we have the killer best way to monetize social networks yet.”

There is ample historical data that proves web sites like these are inherently difficult to monetize.  Most other online communication products have had similar struggles.  Two great examples of this: the many leading players in the Instant Messaging (IM) space (AIM, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger) and the leading free email sites (Hotmail, Yahoo Mail).  These products/sites have always had some of the lowest eCPMs on the Internet.  Many speculate that this is because the user is so heavily engaged in using the product (i.e. communicating) that they are unlikely to be distracted by or engaged in an advertising message.  Another corollary to this point is that other Internet properties offer more direct purchasing intent based on the way they aggregate users.  Example here include TheKnot for brides, TripAdvisor for travelers, and even Google, where the search query highly delineates the direct intent of the user, allowing the advertiser to find users already in the purchasing funnel.  All of these properties have incredibly high eCPMs.

0700hk

Despite this conundrum, there is a solution.  Luckily for these U.S. based companies, a Chinese company named TenCent has already paved the way by identifying the optimal way to monetize this type of product.  For those that don’t know, TenCent is the owner of the leading IM franchise in China – a product known affectionately as “QQ”.  TenCent was founded in 1998, has 355 million users,  US$1.2B in annual revenues, and a US$11.2B market capitalization.  The stock chart for the past 5 years is included in the adjacent graphic.  The two primary drivers of revenue for TenCent are digital items and casual game packages and upgrades.  Advertising, which doesn’t work well on U.S. products like IM, doesn’t work well in China either.  Advertising revenues for TenCent represent only 12% of total revenues.  Recently, I asked a leading Internet analyst which company in China is best positioned above all others?  He quickly replied “TenCent”.

The spreadsheet below tries to highlight the monetization differences between TenCent, Facebook, and MySpace.  For each we have taken our best guess at monthly unique users, monthly page views, monthly revenues, and advertising as a percentage of revenue.  For TenCent, these numbers are published.  For MySpace and Facebook we used the best information we could find and/or infer.  We then calculated effective CPM (eCPM), revenue/user, and advertising revenue per user.  Lastly, we show these same numbers for TenCent with a cost of living adjustment.  In China the cell-phone ARPU (average revenue per user) is about 1/5th of that here in the U.S., so adjusting these numbers up by 5X gives you a much better number for comparing directly with the U.S. properties. 

social-spreadsheet2

The takeaways are quite straightforward.  The amount of advertising revenue on an adjusted basis at TenCent ($2.08) is quite similar to Facebook ($2.44) and MySpace ($5.85) (some may wonder why MySpace ad revenue per user is higher than Facebook – many believe they are more aggressive with ad placement and insertion).  The key difference in this comparison is obviously the revenue TenCent generates with business models that are largely absent on both Facebook and MySpace — digital items and casual game revenue.  For every $2 of adjusted advertising revenue TenCent has per user per year, they generate $17 in other revenue streams.  Benchmark Capital has invested in two private companies in the social/virtual world space – SecondLife and Gaia Online.  In both cases, the company revenues are significant, and in both cases advertising is not the leading business model.

More supportive data comes from the three leading social network players in Japan.  Believe or not, all three companies are already public and trade on different segments of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.  You will see in the same spreadsheet that Mixi, DENA (Mobage-town), and GREE have market capitalizations of US$511MM, US$1.5B, and US$1.1B respectively, and are all very profitable.   DENA and GREE, which interestingly are more popular on mobile than on the PC, have invested heavily in these two magic business models (casual games and digital items) and have revenues per user that dwarf that of Facebook or Myspace (DENA is 10X Facebook on this metric!).  As a result, these companies sport market capitalizations per user of over $100.  Here is the big punch line: Mixi is the actual leader in the market in terms of users, is the clear leader on the PC, is the company that most resembles U.S.-based social networks, and has remained focused on advertising as its core revenue steam.  Not surprisingly, their revenues per user are a fraction of DENA and GREE, as is their market capitalization.  

At a recent public investor conference in San Francisco, Alexander Tamas, an executive associated with the leading free email service in Russia (Mail.ru), noted that his company felt that the U.S. companies have little understanding on how to monetize a product like Mail.ru, and that they were taking their clues from TenCent in China.  Most of the public market investors in the audience, who have witnessed TenCent, DENA, and GREE’s remarkable success, nodded in agreement.  Gaia also presented at this conference and the crowd was standing-room only.  The questions from the audience made it even more apparent that the buy-side investors have a strong appreciation for the digital item business model. 

It is peculiar to have a situation where the NY-centric public market investors are more open minded to a new business model prior to the entrepreneurial executives on the west coast, but that is clearly the case here.  It is not hard to see why investors like this model.  When Pony Ma, the founder of TenCent, first described the digital item model to me five years ago I was blown away.  He was selling virtual clothes and accessories for digital avatars that represented his users online.  Think about it; this is a beautifully high gross margin business with very low marginal costs.  He even told me he thought digital shirts should deteriorate over time like real ones.  Pure genius. 

sunglassesIt is my perception that most U.S. executives have trouble conceiving and believing in the digital item model.  For starters, they simply think it’s strange.  “Why would someone buy clothes for their virtual avatar?  That’s weird.”  What they fail to realize is that U.S. consumers pay for “virtual” things all the time.  In the attached picture you see a pair of expensive Chanel sunglasses that retail for $329.  If you removed the Chanel logo from them, and offered them for $50 cheaper, you could not sell a pair.  Not one.  Why?  People are buying an image that they want to project about themselves.  Without the logo, they fail to make that statement.  The same is true for watches, clothes, cars, sodas, beers, cell phones, and many more items.  People care greatly about how they are perceived, and are willing to part with big bucks to achieve it.  Digital items are merely the same phenomenon online.

Another reason that digital items are a great monetization model for a social network is congruence of fit with the core activity of the site.  We already discussed how for TheKnot, the decision to come to the site is very consistent with identifying exactly “who” the advertiser is trying to reach and at “what time”.  For social networking sites, one of the key “experiences” of users is self-expression.  Think about it: is the Facebook news feed more about the reader or the poster?  Isn’t someone’s MySpace page all about self-expression?  If people are there to represent and express themselves, shouldn’t you build a business model that charges for the ability to better differentiate oneself?  Shouldn’t you also charge for ego-gratification on a sliding scale (the bigger the ego, the more the charge)?

These same executives like to believe that digital items are distinctly an Asian phenomenon – a convenient theory will prove to be a dangerous rationalization over time.  Here are some numbers from a U.S. corporation.  As I mentioned we are investors in LindenLab and their leading vitual world, SecondLife.  In SecondLife, the users are the ones that get to sell digital goods (rather than the company as in TenCent’s case).  Linden makes its money providing the platform services underneath this powerful economy.  At this moment in time, the economy inside of SecondLife – the amount of digital goods and services – sold each year between SecondLife users, is over a US$450mm annual run rate.  Of this, developers are realizing over $100MM in real profits extracted from Linden’s in-world to real-world currency exchange.  And keep in mind that SecondLife has much fewer users than either Facebook or MySpace.

Another interesting data point exists in the Facebook and MySpace application developer programs.  Best I can tell, the startups that are generating the most revenue on top of either platform are either selling digital items/avatars, or providing casual game packages — the exact two business models that are the drivers at TenCent, DENA, and GREE.  This is hardly a coincidence.

Despite these arguments and the fact that others have also been arguing this same point, it would be surprising if either MySpace or Facebook move in this direction.  First, they would need to have executive buy-in, which is not obvious at this point.  Second, they would need to hire people with experience in executing against this model.  Like any other endeavor in life, there are right ways and wrong ways to exploit these models, and there are already many experts in the field of digital items and casual games.  Lastly, they would need to prioritize this direction over other programs.  Currently, MySpace seems extremely focused on music, and Facebook on user-based communications.

The good news is that if they ever get around to deploying these models, they will not have trouble convincing Wall Street it’s a good idea – Wall Street is already there.

(follow me on twitter)

More Information:

Wikipedia on TenCent
TenCent IR About Page
TenCent IR Investor Intro
Stock Information and Company Financials on Mixi
Stock Information and Company Financials on DENA
Stock Information and Company Financials on GREE

In addition to these, most of the large US investment banks are covering TenCent, DENA, and GREE with English based research.  If you have a relationship with one of these banks, you can likely ask for their reports.

 

 

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    About

    …focusing on the evolution and economics of high technology business and strategy. By day, I am a venture capitalist at Benchmark Capital.

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