Category: Measurement and value

Why Facebook is worth only $5.6 billion

Given today is Facebook listing day I figured I had to add my pennyworth (again) to the whole “is it worth it” debate.  I reckon the true value of Facebook is something in the order of $5.6 billion.  Here is how I derive that figure.

First I take a stab at guessing what it costs to deliver A Facebook (i.e. the service that Facebook delivers to its users, rather than the service it delivers to advertisers).  I reckon this is around £300 million.  It is the costs for the server space and the techy maintenance.  Now I know Facebook states it has much higher costs than this, but these are the costs associated within maintaining a business model that it needs to sustain a valuation of $100 billion – not the costs associated with delivering the service to its users.

Then I add a respectable margin to that figure (say 25%).  That gives me revenue of $375 million.  Then put a 15x multiple on that and you get $5.6 billion.

Now, Facebook is already generating much more revenue than the $375 million I think it should be earning.  So my figures are already wrong, right?  Well go back to basic economics.  In the long-term in functioning competitive markets, companies cannot generate significantly more for providing a service than it costs to deliver that service – because that simply creates a window for a competitor to come in at a lower price.  You can only break this rule by distorting the competitive framework in which you operate.  Facebook is currently operating in a distorted market because there isn’t a competitor and all the clever analysts haven’t yet actually worked out a realistic model for valuing something like Facebook – they all rely on a derivation of the old media platfrom model, forgeting that Facebook is not a media platform and its users are not an audience.  Facebook is actually an infrastructure – an infrastructure that cannot basically charge for the majority of the cost of that infrastructure because we already pay for it through what we pay to our internet service provider.

And as for competitors, they will come.  And their competitive edge will come from promising users that they won’t sell the users’ data.  And they will be able to do this, because they won’t need to sell the data, because they won’t need the revenue, because they won’t have to sustain a silly valuation.

Therefore, if you place a bet on Facebook at its current price, you are betting on Facebook’s ability to maintain a distorted market.   Long-term this is an absurdly risky proposition.

Long exposition on the value of Facebook and Google here.

Facebook IPO valuation: its all about costs, not about revenue

I have had a quick look at the Facebook prospectus.  The thing I found really interesting was not confirmation of revenue and its dependence on advertising, but a very first glimpse of how Facebook’s costs are structured.  I  believe the key to working out a long-term, sustainable valuation for Facebook as a business lies in its costs – for the very simple and old-fashioned reason that a business cannot create marginal revenues that are significantly greater than marginal costs (if it is operating in a functioning, competitive market – which of course Facebook is not at the moment).  If you therefore want to understand long-term revenue potential, understand marginal costs.

Facebook has shown its costs thus:

  • Costs of revenue: $860 million
  • Marketing and sales: $427 million
  • Research and development: $388 million
  • General administrative:$280 million

This, of itself, is quite an intersting breakdown.  What other companies might there be where marketing, sales and R&D account for 41% of total cost?  A pharmaceuticals company perhaps?  However, what Facebook hasn’t done is split costs out in a way which allows us to see how much Facebook is spending on people, versus how much is spend on tangible operation costs, such as server space and data centres.  What Facebook labels “salaries, benefits and share-based compensation” is included within the figures for each of these categories, including the ‘Costs of Revenue’ line.  One would suspect that, in reality, people costs are a very sigificant element in all of these categories and it would be nice to know how this breaks down – not least because it will give us a glimpse of what it actually costs to deliver and maintain the infrastructure that is Facebook.

Knowing this is pretty important because it allows us to get a handle of what Facebook’s true marginal costs are and thus its true revenue potential.  What is already clear is that most of the costs associated with marketing, sales and R&D are not true costs, in that they are the costs Facebook has elected to incur in order to support the business model it has chosen to construct.  They are discretionary costs, in that any competitor coming into the market need not incur them in order to deliver a similar service to users.  In effect, Facebook has decided to incur these costs in order to service advertisers and chase sufficient revenue to justify a valuation in excess of $60 billion, rather than the revenue it needs to actually deliver the service to its users.

Look at it another way.  Facebook has 845 million active users.  Match this against costs of $1,955 million and this comes out at $2.30 per user.  Now I know this isn’t a truly accurate way of establishing marginal costs – but it probably isn’t way short of the mark.  So are we to believe that it costs Facebook around $2 to service every additional user.  Of course not, it will cost Facebook much less than this.

If I had to take a stab at it, I would reckon you could deliver A Facebook (if not The Facebook) to users for something in the region of $300 million.  Take that, plus a margin of say 25% and that gives you revenue of $375 million.  Put a multiple of say 15x on that and you get a valuation of $5.6 billion.  The fact that Facebook is already earning revenues of $1.7 billion, and carries a valuation in excess of $60 billion might give one pause for thought.  I don’t earn millions as an analysts at Goldman Sachs – so I wouldn’t necessarily set much store on my opinion.  But if I were an analyst at Goldman Sachs, I would certainly want a whole lot more information on Facebook’s costs.

LinkedIn has an invitation to connect with David Ricardo

I would like to return to the issue of the value of LinkedIn.  This is prompted by the fact that I have been reading Tim Harford’s excellent book The Undercover Economist.  The opening chapters of this book reference the pioneering work of the 19th century economist David Ricardo and his investigations into price (income),  costs and the importance of what happens at the margin to determining the relationship between the two and thus profitability.

Ricardo highlighted the importance of marginal costs (i.e. what it costs to produce one more unit of production or add one more customer) in setting prices and thus generating revenue and creating profits.  Very basically, what Ricardo showed was that in a relatively competitive and open market, you cannot generate revenue from your product that is significantly more than the marginal cost.

In 2010, LinkedIn revenue was $243 million (according to Mashable) and in March 2011, LinkedIn claimed 100 million users.  This means that revenue per user is around $2.43.  According to Ricardo this should indicate that marginal costs will be close to that i.e. the cost to LinkedIn for adding an additional user and servicing them for one year should be not be significantly less than $2.43.  If they were, LinkedIn is either not operating in an open and competitive market or else something else rather odd, and probably unsustainable, is going on. Continue reading