Facebook – Run from the Bulls?

Editor’s note: Guest author Keith Teare is General Partner at his incubator Archimedes Labs and CEO of newly funded just.me. He was a co-founder of TechCrunch.

Much ink has been spilled these past few days on the Facebook IPO filing. Much of it analyses the details revealed in the S1 initial document. Some of it has focused on revenue and growth; some of it on control and corporate governance, some on valuation and how reasonable or not it is likely to be, and a little on whether or not the IPO represents the end of Facebook’s growth cycle.

So, should you be a bull, and buy? Or should you run as fast as you can away from the bulls?

For guidance turn to the risk factors part of the filing.

For me, the most interesting part of the document is that part focused on Facebook’s mobile strategy and associated risks, and what that tells us to be alert to in the future.

Now, to be clear, Facebook and its employees have done the most wonderful job of riding the transformation of the Internet from a place where anonymous individuals surfed the web, consumed information and media and accessed services to discover relevant things into an Internet where named individuals publish information to each other and discover things from friends. Facebook dominates the modern Internet. Its APIs extend its reach outside of its garden into almost every website on the planet – this one included. It is awesome to behold and it generates significant revenues already, and even more significant profits. Hats off to all involved.

This success shouldn’t blind us to the relative size of company we are talking about. Last week Apple reported profits of over $13 billion for a quarter, Google’s revenues were lower than that number, and Facebook’s revenues are lower than Google’s profits. Facebook is huge by startup standards, but not by Internet standards. There is much more in its future.

But this article isn’t about that. It is about the context within which the human Facebook IPO is happening. The Facebook S1 is clear on that context. In the risk factors of its filing it states:

Growth in use of Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently display ads, as a substitute for use on personal computers may negatively affect our revenue and financial results.

We anticipate that the rate of growth in mobile users will continue to exceed the growth rate of our overall MAUs for the foreseeable future, in part due to our focus on developing mobile products to encourage mobile usage of Facebook. Although the substantial majority of our mobile users also access and engage with Facebook on personal computers where we display advertising, our users could decide to increasingly access our products primarily through mobile devices. We do not currently directly generate any meaningful revenue from the use of Facebook mobile products, and our ability to do so successfully is unproven. Accordingly, if users continue to increasingly access Facebook mobile products as a substitute for access through personal computers, and if we are unable to successfully implement monetization strategies for our mobile users, our revenue and financial results may be negatively affected.

Facebook initial S1 filing, 1 Feb 2012, page 13

The reason this risk factor jumps out of the page – for me – is that this trend to growing mobile use is inevitable. What is more, it will be both rapid and enormous. How do we know this? Well, human beings are flocking to mobile platforms in droves. This is happening to such an extent that Kleiner Perkins partner Mary Meeker went on the record almost 1 year ago to say that we are now in the 5th major technology cycle of the past half century (mainframe; mini-computer; desktop; internet and now mobile) and that mobile traffic will “grow 26 times over the next 5 years”. The presentation linked above is 56 slides long and is well worth a read.

So the risk that “our users could decide to increasingly access our products primarily through mobile devices,” is not a risk. It is a certainty.

When Google reported its financial results for the quarter 2 weeks ago it failed to meet a key metric – Cost Per Click advertising rates. This too was driven by the growth in the relative proportion of traffic derived from mobile. In mobile, ad clicks are fewer and ad rates are lower.

Google’s present – and Facebook’s future – involves the painful fact that the very success of mobile platforms in helping human beings be productive, on the go, has a negative impact on the desktop-based advertising programs of the past 10 years. Mobile growth impacts web advertising revenues, except of course for Apple who make money from hardware and software and so benefits from these trends. The reason is simple. We do less ad-centric activities on mobile than we did on the web. And we are less likely to click away on an ad when we are focused on a specific goal on a largely single window device.

The challenge faced by any content based mobile platform will be to try and figure out a revenue strategy that can monetize mobile use as mobile minutes cannibalize desktop minutes in the months and years ahead. There are many efforts to figure this out. From virtual goods in the context of games (Zynga and others); to subscriptions for high quality content (Wall Street Journal, The Economist); to advertising and sponsorships in content (see Fotopedia’s “Japan” app); and Payment systems (Square).

None of these are the solution – although all are valid and scalable. The billions spent on the web each year by advertisers will have to find a way to be effectively spent in the place consumers increasing will be – on smartphones. The mobile platform needs an innovation that fits it as closely as Google’s Adsense and Adwords were a fit for the desktop era. One thing we know for sure. Revolutions in computing are harsh on those who fail to adapt to what is new.

Photo credit: Camilo Rueda López