The news today that Facebook was buying messaging app “Whatsapp” for an amount of 19 Billion dollars was greeted mainly by shock in the financial media. While most agreed that the amount is excessive for a company which in 2013 had $20 million worth of revenue, some have tried to justify the valuation based on the potential future profits if Whatsapp is able to eventually monetize the user base. Recent tech acquisitions (Instagram, Nest) and the valuation of companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Tencent have drawn comparison with the 90’s tech bubble, but i think this is the clearest example that we are actually in the middle of a tech bubble.
Firstly we have the absurdity of Henry Blodget chastising us for thinking that $19Bn is too much http://www.businessinsider.com/why-facebook-buying-whatsapp-2014-2. Blodget is the founder of “Business Insider” and was one of the original internet stock gurus, touting internet stocks like etoys.com publicly while referring to them as “junk” in his private emails.
Secondly we have the re-emergence of financial metrics that may have no relation to how much profit the business is actually making. We now see tech companies again being valued on metrics such as “price to sales”. In the case of social media companies and now messaging apps “price per user” is used to justify a high valuation in the absence of revenue. Whatsapp ostensibly charges $1 per year for each user, but no one actually seems to pay it. A big part of why Whatsapp’s user base has grown to an impressive 450 million is that HAS no revenue model (ie it is free). If it did have a revenue model it would not have 450 million users.
I have used whatsapp almost exclusively for the last few years and its speed, ease of use and lack of ads has made it the standard here in South Africa. Their implementation has been excellent and far superior to similar apps which were launched at the time (eBuddy is one i tried but it was slower and full of ads). While Whatsapp is touted as the fastest growing social media app of all time, network effects in instant messaging are much lower than social media and it is a business which is easily to replicate. Most people have several messaging apps on their phone and can easily switch if necessary. I can also see Apple (iMessage) or Google (gchat/hangouts) launching cross platform “whatsapp” style versions of their messaging apps in the same way as Blackberry did with their BBM messenger. An offering from Apple or Google will be a compelling alternative, and mean that Whatsapp will never be able to monetize their offering as it would risk destroying their user base.
One mitigating factor in the valuation of the transaction is that only $4 billion of the purchase price is in cash, with the rest in settled in Facebook’s expensive (50-110 PE) stock. This makes the headline purchase price somewhat academic.
On a side note this transaction got me thinking about the nature of implementation and luck in internet start-ups. In South Africa there was a free messaging app called Mxit which was launched around 2003 and was the messaging standard among South African youth for most of the decade. It but it began to lose favour towards the end of 2010 with the proliferation of smartphones and Blackberry messenger. While it still exists today, and recently launched in India, it has been through several management changes and seems unlikely to survive. What amazes me is that this free messaging app predated whatsapp (which launched in 2009) by about 6 years, an absolute age in the tech industry. Even though Naspers, SA’s biggest media and technology company, purchased a 30% stake in 2007, Mxit never managed to expand their reach or capture a user base in the way that whatsapp was able to so quickly after its launch. I would be very interested from those close to the story to understand why.