Facebook: A Popping Bubble

I’ll tell you one thing. I am sick and tired of the 24/7 surround sound about Facebook. And, I certainly don’t care to hear every detail about the hoodied, smart, and incredibly lucky one’s life.

Seriously, whether or not Facebook’s IPO was the big pin-prick popping of the entire technology industry as described in “Tech Bubble II,” or just a little release of air, remains to be seen. But, I do believe it was a serious popping of Facebook’s own bubble – one whose inflation has been taking place over the past several years, and with particular intensity leading up to the IPO.

Ironically, the investment geeks expected a different sort of “pop” on opening day. Too bad for you guys, but I don’t really worry about you anyway, knowing you’ll fill some other balloon full of hot air for the “greater fools” to throw money at. Furthermore, you did this to yourselves by pricing the shares at a whopping $38, which put a valuation on the company of $104 billion, more than 100 times Facebook’s net profit, while Google is at 18 times earnings and Apple at 13 times. And, of course, Amazon, worth about $90 billion today, was valued at just over $400 million when it went public in 1997. Ebay, currently valued at about $40 billion, went public in the 90’s at a $650 million valuation, and Cisco, perhaps the most important company in computer networking infrastructure, worth about $92 billion, went public at $225 million profit.

So, why in the world did the supposed brilliant financiers leading this IPO tag the opening price at $38? The many experts who’ve weighed in on this have called it just plain stupid.  Maybe the financiers were simply drinking their own bubble-laced Kool-Aid, victims of their own hyped-up machines creating the next great derivative balloon, which in itself is scary because you know they’ll find one, if they have not already in Tech Bubble II.

Facebook is Not About Making Money

Jeff Bezos, who has built the world’s largest marketplace, selling real stuff and services, can legitimately say that in the short term Amazon is willing to lose money to gain dominant share of market, “to get big fast.  He’s proven this to be a winning strategy, and is now making money.

On the other hand, here’s what Mark Zuckerberg had to say about both the IPO and the non-business he believes Facebook to be just before ringing the bell of the Stock Exchange on the morning of May 18th: “Right now, this (the IPO) all seems like a big deal. Going public is an important milestone in our history. But here’s the thing. Our mission isn’t to be a public company. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

OOOKAY Mark!! Maybe you are on to something.  Maybe we have really entered a new era where businesses do not need to make money.  Maybe some of the “best and brightest” swaggering moguls on Wall Street have, in fact, engineered a business model that doesn’t need to make money, one which they simply package in with a bunch of other stuff (essentially paper), and sell it around the world, over and over again.  Sound familiar?

But, of course they haven’t.  However, am I missing something?  While I think Facebook is a wonderful thing, how can its 27-year-old largest shareholder, having just become a multi-billionaire through an IPO, say “our mission isn’t to be a public company – our mission is to make the world more open and connected,” without reigniting some long-held concerns and beliefs among investors and potential advertisers and vendors that Facebook cannot be converted into a money-making commercial venture?

For example, the very week of the IPO, General Motors pulled their $10 million advertising campaign out of Facebook, citing they could not really determine value received.  And, $10 million barely makes a dent into the close to $3 billion ad budget GM spends annually in the U.S.  Not a very good endorsement.

As I said before, even though Facebook’s influence on purchasing behavior via word-of-mouth is beyond dispute, its attempts at expanding into an e-commerce marketplace (“F-commerce” as it’s been called), have so far failed. Its first foray with 1-800-flowers.com in 2009 was followed by several other retailers, including Gap, JC Penney and Nordstrom’s, all of which pulled out. About F-commerce, which saw itself as another Amazon-type retailing channel, Forrester Research’s Sucharita Mulpuru, said, “….it was like trying to sell stuff to people while they’re hanging out with their friends at the bar.”

So, if Zuckerberg’s vision doesn’t extend beyond just making the world more open and connected, to figuring out how to connect commerce with his community, Facebook, in my opinion, will end up being The Big Bubble That Popped.

In The Meantime

But for now, as the bubbly is still flowing while Mark and his lovely new wife are probably honeymooning somewhere in this more open and connected  world, Wall Street and investors are likely pondering the opening share price blunder and what it means for investing strategies going forward.  The opening day was disappointing in both real and psychological terms, ending with a share price barely above its opening.  In fact, the lead bank reportedly had to buy back millions of shares just to shore up the $38 valuation.

Some experts believe the negative sentiments surrounding this event will keep investors on the sidelines at least in the short term, while others believe a more dangerous and longer term effect will impact users’ perceptions of Facebook.

There’s been a lot of speculation around young Mr. Zuckerberg’s ability to acquire the CEO skills needed to run a multi-billion-dollar, publicly owned global business.  I think what he has facing him is well beyond just making the world more open and connected.

Changing the way people interact socially is one thing.  The rough and tumble world of Capitalism and making money is another.

Robin Lewis About Robin Lewis

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.