Hugging a hoodie has always been a risky business, but never before have the stakes been so high.
Tomorrow, Wall Street will invite the world to buy shares in Facebook and take what is expected to be a $104?billion gamble on its guiding light, Mark Zuckerberg, a hoodie-wearing 28-year-old who, only a few years ago, gave out business cards that read: ‘I’m CEO, b*tch’.
It’s no wonder, then, that Friday’s stock market launch – or initial public offering (IPO) – of the internet’s most popular social network has evoked almost as many shivers of fear in the business world as it has gasps of excitement.
Zuckerberg, a dentist’s son who created his original networking site in a single night from his dorm room at Harvard just eight years ago, will ring the opening bell on New York’s NASDAQ exchange tomorrow.
Elevation: The IPO will make Bono the richest pop star in the world. But the move to place Facebook on the stock market has has evoked almost as many shivers of fear in the business world as it has gasps of excitement
Lack of respect: Zuckerberg is known to turn up to meetings with investors wearing a hoody and jeans
It is a staggering market value – bigger than US manufacturing giants Ford and Boeing combined, and all the more incredible given that Facebook currently earns a fraction of what those ‘old world’ companies do.
Facebook executives have spent the past two weeks trying to convince investors that its advertising business and its unmatched collection of user data makes it worthy of such a huge valuation.
Not everybody has been impressed, especially big cheese Wall Street investors at a New York meeting last week, which Zuckerberg attended wearing his trademark jeans and hoodie.
He’s done it before, once even addressing a group of venture capitalists in his pyjamas. But that was in the old days and Zuckerberg is supposed to have grown up since then.
‘His signature hoodie is actually showing investors he doesn’t care that much,’ griped Michael Pachter, a senior analyst.
For Pachter and his suited Wall Street colleagues, Zuckerberg’s hoodie was a worrying ‘sign of immaturity’; an arrogant lack of respect to the people whose wallets he was trying to open.
What Mr Pachter really meant was that despite (or perhaps because of) his phenomenal wealth, Zuckerberg doesn’t care enough about making money, which – his friends insist – is absolutely true.
For ‘Zuck’, as he’s known to his inner circle, is famously unmaterialistic. He rattled around for years in a workaday old Honda saloon, though he now lives quietly in a relatively unostentatious $7?million (4.4?m), five-bedroom house in the Silicon Valley town of Palo Alto with his Chinese-American girlfriend Priscilla Chan and their dog Beast, a dreadlocked Hungarian sheepdog.
A handful of college friends and investors who were in on Facebook’s early years will become lesser billionaires. They include co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who has just infuriated some Americans by renouncing his U.S. citizenship to become a national of low-tax Singapore, just before the IPO nets him as much as $4?bn (2.5?bn). Sean Parker, the computer hacker behind the controversial piracy site Napster, replaced Saverin as president and also stands to make $4?billion.
Chris Hughes, the first Facebook spokesman before he left to run Barack Obama’s online presidential campaign, is in line for $1bn (627?m). More unexpectedly, the Facebook IPO is set to make U2 frontman Bono easily the world’s richest rock star.
The private equity firm Elevation Partners, which Bono co-founded, bought 2.3 per cent of Facebook for $90?m (56?m) in 2009, which will soon be worth more than $1.5?bn (940?m).
Instant billionaires: Facebook President Sean Parker, left, and co-founder Eduardo Saverin, right, will see the value of their shares rocket on Friday
Together with his other investments and income from music, his stake is expected to make him richer than the next wealthiest pop star, Sir Paul McCartney, who is estimated to be worth 665?m. David Choe, the graffiti artist who astutely chose to be paid in shares for spray painting Facebook’s offices, could make as much as $500?m (313?m) while Zuckerberg’s father Edward, who gave his son some early seed money, could make $76?m (47?m) on the two million shares he was given in return.
Even if many say it had a lot to do with luck, Facebook’s success story has been the stuff of business school dreams. At the end of 2004, Facebook had only a million users, all of them in US universities, but the site is now available to anyone aged 13 or older in almost every country around the world. A gobsmacking one in every seven minutes online is now spent on Facebook, with the average user spending 23 minutes a day updating their page and trawling through comments by their ‘friends’.
All that time spent typing in our achievements, preferences and updates on our latest shopping trips has produced a planet-sized store of data. Facebook uses this data to sell supposedly highly-targeted advertising.
So, if a woman who lists her hometown as Milton Keynes changes her relationship status from ‘single’ to ‘engaged’, Facebook could offer her some adverts for local florists, wedding dress designers and caterers.
If she also lists on Facebook that she has an Oxbridge degree, the site has an even better idea of what price range might be appropriate.
That knowledge is gold-dust to advertisers, meaning Facebook now earns an average of $4.84 (3) a year on each user. But is that enough to justify that $104?bn price tag
Some have their doubts. While the company earned around $4?billion (2.5?bn) last year – most from advertising – number crunchers estimate Facebook will have to double its income every year for the next three years to even start satisfying profit-hungry shareholders.
Here, problems are already stacking up. Not only has Facebook’s previously viral growth slowed considerably, it also faces growing scepticism from advertisers starting to wonder if the hugely-hyped medium is worth their money.
Over-hyped Facebook is struggling to make full use of smartphone and tablet platforms
Nor does it help that Facebook users increasingly access it on mobile phones rather than computers, and phone screens are generally reckoned to be too small for adverts to work effectively. On Tuesday, General Motors: America’s third biggest advertiser — threw a last-minute spanner in the works of Facebook’s share launch by deciding to pull all its adverts from the network, arguing that they haven’t worked.
Analysts predict other advertisers may now reach the same conclusion
Even back in September last year, Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the world’s biggest advertising group, WPP, admitted he had ‘fundamental’ doubts about whether adverts will ever work on Facebook because users do not like the way they interrupt something that is supposed to be fluid and informal.
Others argue that Facebook hasn’t made as much money as it could because Zuckerberg has never wanted to try too hard, limiting the amount of advertising for fear it would put off users and make his creation look ugly. Indeed it is understood ‘Zuck’ never wanted to launch his creation on the stock market but was forced to do so by US regulations dictating what a company must do once it has 500 shareholders.
As he himself pontificated in a letter to potential investors in February, Facebook was built not to make money but ‘to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected’. It’s hardly a reassuring message for the markets — and given that Zuckerberg owns more than 18 per cent of Facebook shares but controls more than 57 per cent of the voting rights, investors may have a battle on their hands forcing him to take a more commercial outlook about the company’s future.
But Facebook users can certainly expect to be bombarded with far more adverts.
So with all these headaches ahead, why the frenzy to invest
First, say enthusiasts, because the company is so ubiquitous it cannot fail to make a stack of money if its owners put their minds to it.
Second, it’s so beloved by its users that companies out to ‘build their brand’ can profit just by paying to be associated with such a ‘cool’ service. But will it still be cool when Facebook’s fans are bombarded with advertising
There are plenty more social networks ready to step into the breach and some argue that its popularity has peaked and that the clock is already ticking for Facebook.
Zuck and his geeky gang pulled off an incredible achievement building a college dorm room brainwave into one of the world’s most envied businesses, but the real challenge actually starts tomorrow.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark after the battle of El Alamein, it could either be the end of the beginning as Facebook, padded with billions of dollars, sets off on the next stage on its mission for global domination .?.?. sorry, for a ‘more open, connected world’.
Or, as some fear, it could be the beginning of the end as the idealists from Silicon Valley fall victim to a deluge of impossible expectations, Wall Street greed and the popping of another huge dotcom bubble.