Facebook made a breathtaking move yesterday, buying messaging app WhatsApp for $19 billion.
Even for Facebook, that's a staggering amount to pay for a company with estimated 2013 revenue of only $20 million. It represents almost 10% of Facebook's overall value.
And in the wake of the announcement, the usual chorus of armchair pundits took to Twitter to snicker together and pronounce Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, brain dead.
But Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion isn't brain dead.
It's just bold.
Like other bold moves, Facebook's WhatsApp deal could end up looking brilliant.
That's what makes it bold.
If it were guaranteed to end up looking brilliant, it wouldn't be bold. It would be obvious.
I don't know how Facebook's WhatsApp deal will end up looking - and neither, it's worth noting, do any of the pundits who are pronouncing it brain dead. Based on everything I do know, though, I think the odds are that it will end up looking brilliant.
WhatsApp's growth and usage is absolutely mind-boggling. Five years after its founding, the company has 450 million active monthly users, of which a staggering ~315 million use it every day. WhatsApp is adding 1 million new users a day - 1 million! Facebook thinks WhatsApp could have 1 billion users in a few years, and this estimate seems conservative. (Facebook itself only has 1.2 billion users.) WhatsApp also does a lot more than "text-messaging." It allows users to send photos, videos, and voicemails to each other and keep the conversations forever. In short, it allows users to do a lot of what Facebook does. So, again, Facebook really does appear to be buying "the next Facebook."
WhatsApp already has a powerful revenue model, and other successful messaging apps are showing the potential for it to add many more. WhatsApp ostensibly charges its users $1 per year after the first year. ("Ostensibly" because I've never heard of anyone actually paying this $1). Assuming most current users end up paying the $1/year, that's a potential revenue stream of several hundred million dollars a year from WhatsApp's current revenue model alone. Meanwhile, other messaging apps like Line and WeChat have demonstrated the power of "stickers," user-to-user payments, ecommerce, and other revenue streams. When you have as many users as WhatsApp, generating even only a few dollars per year per user creates a massive business.
WhatsApp has very low costs, so it should eventually be wildly profitable. WhatsApp currently has only 55 employees. Assuming an all-in cost of $200,000 per employee, that's a total cost base of $11 million. Let's assume WhatsApp grows to, say, 300 employees over the next few years. Then it will have a cost base of only $50-$75 million. Meanwhile, if the company's growth trajectory continues, it could easily be pulling in more than $1 billion a year of revenue in a few years. Almost all of that would be profit.
The names of all the smart people who pronounced Facebook itself a "fad" or "worthless" and dissed every new investment in the company as "moronic" could fill a book. Most people have consistently underestimated the power, growth potential, and value of the leading social platforms, including Facebook. Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of Instagram, for example, which was then a revenue-less company with 13 employees, was seen as proof that Mark Zuckerberg was a clueless kid who had no business running a major company. Meanwhile, Facebook is now valued at $175 billion, and Instagram is considered one of the smartest pre-emptive acquisitions in history. $19 billion for WhatsApp is a much bolder bet than Instagram, but it, too, could end up looking a lot smarter than most people think.
The bottom line:
This is a very bold move.
Like other bold moves, it might end up looking stupid, but it also might end up looking brilliant.
It's also a long-term move, a bet on what the future will look like 5-10 years from now, not next quarter.
In that way, this deal is a vintage Mark Zuckerberg move.
Zuckerberg continues to be one of the few CEOs in the world (Jeff Bezos is another) who is willing to sacrifice near-term earnings and expose himself to short-term ridicule in order to make bold long-term bets. This approach has worked out great for Facebook so far. And it has worked out great for Amazon.
In short, Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion isn't stupid. It's just bold.