Business

Facebook confirms public offering

The flotation stands to make billionaires of Mark Zuckerberg, the 27-year-old who launched TheFacebook.com from his Harvard University room eight years ago, and a small cadre of friends and early backers.
The flotation stands to make billionaires of Mark Zuckerberg, the 27-year-old who launched TheFacebook.com from his Harvard University room eight years ago, and a small cadre of friends and early backers. Paul Sakuma

AFTER years of poring ourselves into Facebook - our likes and our bugbears, our proud achievements and our embarrassing photos, what we have read and who we have loved - we are about to find out what this torrent of confession is worth.

The social networking giant's 850 million-strong user base underpins what is expected to be the largest technology flotation in history, a stock market debut that could value the company at $75bn-$100bn and which was last night generating the kind of investor frenzy not seen since the days of the dotcom bubble.

Reuters is reporting that the Facebook board has appointed Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan as its lead underwriters.

The flotation stands to make billionaires of Mark Zuckerberg, the 27-year-old who launched TheFacebook.com from his Harvard University room eight years ago, and a small cadre of friends and early backers.

It also opens a dramatic new chapter for a company that has reshaped the way people communicate online, and created a vast and lucrative new business targeting users with personalised ads, whose implications are only beginning to be understood.

Facebook executives spent yesterday putting the final touches to the marketing materials it will use to sell a $5bn-plus sliver of the company, while lowlier employees went to work knowing that more than 1,000 of them - one out of three - could soon be dollar millionaires on paper.

Two of Mr Zuckerbergis Harvard friends and Facebook co-founders - Dustin Moskovitz, who stayed with the company until 2008, and Eduardo Saverin, whose breach with Mr Zuckerberg was the subject of the film The Social Network - will also become billionaires, along with investors Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, and Sean Parker, the creator of Napster.

The publication of the share prospectus fires the starting gun on the flotation, with Facebook shares joining the stock market by the end of May.

Such was the anticipation that business television provided rolling coverage yesterday of the build-up, while analysts waited with baited breath to discover the financial details of an internet colossus whose profitability has been kept secret for so long.

Analysts say Mr Zuckerberg, whose personal stake in the company could be worth $20bn, faces daunting challenges to keep his company on an even keel despite the flotation hoopla.

As well as having to ensure his mega-rich employees keep turning up for work every day, he will have to assure the company's most important asset - its users - that he will be a responsible guardian of their privacy, despite the demands of his new shareholders to make ever more profit from the use of their personal data.

"Today is a big day for the entire tech industry," said analyst Debra Aho Williams, whose research company eMarketer has published extensive forecasts on Facebookis size, profits and market share - and who will finally get to judge the accuracy of those figures against the real numbers revealed in the Facebook prospectus.

"iFacebook is in a small category of companies to have changed the world ... which changed the way people used computers."

And from a business perspective, Facebook has changed the way companies believe they should market, by making them communicate directly with their customers. Facebook is still at a very early stage of what it could become and the business it could build from the data it has collected and will be capable of collecting, with the host of privacy questions that raises.

The one thing that has not changed is that Facebook is very comfortable pushing the envelope in terms of what data it collects and what it can use for advertisers. At every turn it keeps winning.

There have been outcries over each change, but users soon forget - because using Facebook is fun.

The Facebook prospectus was expected to set out the legal risks facing the company, including possible lawsuits over privacy issues and the threat of a clampdown on what could be done with users' personal data under new laws being proposed in Europe and the US.

Nonetheless, the company was also set to lay out the opportunities it saw for providing advertisers the ability to closely target messages based on users' personal preferences, as revealed in their Facebook profile and online habits. The more likely it is that a user will click on an ad, the more it will pay, and eMarketer believes that some $5.8bn will be spent buying Facebook ads this year. That figure could jump to $7bn in 2013.

The company also takes a cut of money spent within the site on things like games and other apps, and increasing those revenues depends on persuading users to spend more time on Facebook.

Late last year, Mr Zuckerberg unveiled a raft of new features designed to encourage users to listen to music, share news stories and video- chat with each other, all within the site.

Keeping the company's developers focused on building these new features will be a priority for Mr Zuckerberg in the weeks before and after the flotation, said Kevin Werbach, associate professor at the Wharton Business School.

"To the extent that someone went to work at Facebook in its early days because of the prospect of a big pay-off on flotation, it is true that once you get that pay-off it will be harder to motivate them. That is potentially why the company waited so long to go public."

Management's task is to create a culture where their employees are excited still to come to work, even after hitting that home run. The scale of the Facebook flotation is unprecedented, but it has happened in Silicon Valley before and many Facebook employees went through the same thing at Google.

Management has indicated that they are in it for the long haul and to build a great company that will change the world, and that is something that employees look up to.

The issue is whether Facebook management says the same thing the day after the flotation as they did the day before.

Topics:  facebook ipo


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