On May 18 Facebook went public with an opening price of $38/share. Now, after just 2 weeks, it’s more like $28. Ouch – a 25%+ drop in such a short time makes nobody happy. Except buyers. And if you are interested in capturing a high rate of return with little risk, this is your lucky break!
The values of publicly traded companies change, often dramatically, based upon changes in performance and investor expectations about the future. Trying to profit off fast price changes is the world of traders – and the vast majority of them lose fortunes rather than create them. Knowing how to ignore whipsaw events, and invest in good companies when they are out of favor is important to long-term wealth creation.
Investors make money by understanding product markets and the companies supplying them, then investing in companies that build upon trends to create revenue growth with high rates of return over several years. In the forgettable 1999 movie “Blast from the Past” (Brendan Fraser, Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek) a family moves into its nuclear blast shelter in 1960 during a panic, and doesn’t come out for 35 years. Fortunately, the father had bought shares of AT&T and other companies aligned with 1960 trends, and the family discovers upon re-emergence it is quite wealthy.
Creating investment wealth means acting like them, buying shares in companies building on trends so you can hold shares for years without much worry.
If ever there was a company aligned with trends, it is Facebook. The company did not create 900million users in 8 years by being lucky. Facebook is the ultimate information era company. Facebook is not a fad – any more than television or telephones were fads in 1960. Just like they provided fundamental new ways of acquiring and disseminating information Facebook is the newest, most efficient and effective way for connecting and communicating in 2012.
When television appeared the mass population said “why?” There was radio, which was cheap, and older users said TV reduced the use of imagination. And television was not available many hours per day. But it didn’t take long for CBS and its brethren to prove it could attract eyeballs, and soon Proctor & Gamble started paying for programming so it could promote its soaps (remember “soap operas?”) Soon other companies developed programs strictly so they could promote their products. The “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” was sponsored by Geritol, and viewers were reminded of that over and over for 30 minutes every week. Eventually the TV ad model changed, but the lesson is clear – when you can attract eyeballs it has value and there will be businesses creative enough to take advantage.
Now television watching is declining. Instead, people are spending more time on the internet – including via mobile devices. And the location attracting the most people, and by far for the most minutes per day, is Facebook. Facebook’s access to so many people, so often, creates an audience many businesses and non-profits want to tap.
Further, in the networked world Facebook not only has eyeballs, it delivers up to those eyeballs some 9 million apps, and knows what everyone wants, where they come from and where they go next. Beyond the industrial-era business of selling ads (like Google,) Facebook’s information business has significant value for anyone trying to promote or sell a solution. Facebook is a repository of information about people, and their behavior, never before seen, understood or developed for use.
Around the IPO, General Motors decided to drop its Facebook advertising. That freaked some investors. Cries arose that social media is somehow broken, and unable to develop a business model.
Let’s keep in mind who we’re talking about here – GM. Not the most innovative, forward thinking company, to put it mildly. GM, like a lot of other plodding, but big spending, large companies has approached social media like it is just television on the web – and would prefer to simply put up a television ad on a Facebook like link. Whoa! That would be akin to a 1960s TV ad that was simply the text from a newspaper ad. Nobody would read it, and it simply wouldn’t work.
Television required a new kind of communication to reach customers – and social media does as well. TV required the ad be entertaining, with movement, product use demonstrations, and video plus audio to go with the words. Connecting with users was harder, but the message (and connection) could be far more robust. And that is what advertisers are being forced to learn about Facebook/Social. It has new requirements, but once understood companies can be remarkably successful at connecting with potential customers – far more than the traditional one-way approach of historical advertising.
Paid promotion on Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg – a one-way approach to advertising sure to create short-term revenue but not terribly robust. Beyond that, social media changes everything. Retail, for example, is fast shifting from pushing inventory to being all about understanding the customer and offering them what they need in an anticipatory way (think Amazon rather than Best Buy.) And nowhere can you better understand customer needs than by social media participation. By being an information company, rather than an industrial company, FB is remarkably well positioned to create growth – for everybody that figures out how to use this remarkable platform.
As Facebook’s shares kept falling this week, more attention was paid to whether traditional advertisers would buy FB. And much was made about whether the “metrics” were there to justify social media investments. This micro-management approach clearly misses the main point. People are already on Facebook, their numbers are growing, their uses are growing, their time on the site is growing, and the benefits of using Facebook are growing. Trying to measure Facebook use the way you would measure a print ad – or even a Google Adword buy – is simply using the wrong tool.
When P&G first started producing television “soaps” their competition sat back and said “look at what television advertising costs, compared to print and compared to pushing products into the local stores. What is the return for each of those television shows? Can it be justified? I think it is smarter to keep doing what we’ve done while P&G throws money at ads you can’t measure.” By moving beyond the historically myopic view of trying to find returns at the micro level P&G quickly became (at the time) the world’s largest consumer goods company. Early TV advertisers followed the trend, knowing their participation would create returns far in excess of doing more of the old thing. And that is the direction of social media.
There was a lot of anticipatory excitement for the Facebook IPO. Lots of people wanted shares, and couldn’t buy them in advance. The public, and the Morgan Stanley investment bankers, clearly thought the shares would go up. Oops. But that’s a lucky thing for investors. Especially small investors, usually unable to participate in a “hot” IPO. Now anybody can buy FB shares at a 25% discount to the offering price – a better deal than the institutional buyers that usually get the “sweet” deal little guys never see.
If you are an employee, short term you might be unhappy. But if you are an investor, be happy that worries about Greece, the Euro’s future, domestic politics, a lousy jobs report and simple myths like “sell in May and go away” have been a drag on equities this month – and diminished interest in Facebook.
Buy FB shares, then forget about them for a while. What you care about isn’t the value of FB shares in 4 days, 4 weeks or 4 months – you care about 4 years. If you missed the chance to buy Microsoft in 1986, or Amazon in 1997, or Apple in 2000, or Google in 2004 then don’t miss this one. There will be volatility, but the trends are all in your favor.
(Adam hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)