Mark Zuckerberg's phenomenally successful business will be entering the public market and everyone wants to know for how much.
All right, maybe the great recession and near financial apocalypse can compete for significance on a world-historical basis over the last few years with the rise of Facebook. But I’d still vote for Facebook as the big one in its transformative effects on business and culture and human behavior.
And now comes the payoff: a second-quarter IPO.
Never before in the history of breathless internet public offerings has one been so anticipated and so stage-managed. All other major internet IPO’s have been relatively rushed affairs: entrepreneurs have needed the money, and investors have been rightly scared that the market might change or close. Not Facebook’s. In addition to altering the nature of public and private selves, it’s also changed the way young aggressive companies can raise dough: creating a secondary market for buying and selling much-sought-after shares, which acts a lot like the public market (defying the logic, if not rules, of the SEC). As for investor skittishness and market vagaries, Facebook has come to believe – or act like it believes – that the market waits for Facebook. And it seems to.
Facebook, in its eighth year of operation, will be looking for a valuation of $100bn – a number that it may well exceed by another great leap of staging and euphoria.
The seismic nature of the Facebook IPO can hardly be oversold. The IPO creates a currency that will allow the company to buy whatever it needs to vertically integrate all the elements of its massive appetites – to be your wallet, your phone, your search engine, your company’s cash register, your entertainment portal, and your publishing platform, as well as your social life. And to do this all in a closed world of protocol enforcement, behavior monitoring and data gathering.
The technology business is an ever-expanding effort at monopoly and control: Microsoft sped past Apple to grab the desktop; Google sped past Microsoft to control the internet itself; Apple reappeared to control mobile devices. Now Facebook seeks to control pretty much … well, you.
I will let someone else take up the moral issues and I will stick to the business point: I don’t think that Facebook, with its messianic ambitions and squirrelly zeal, is actually ready for the harsh light of public company life. Even though it comes to market with the weight and hegemonic feel of the biggest brands, it has grown up in such a bubble of cultishness and doctrine, that primetime scrutiny could shortly become very uncomfortable.
For one thing, there is CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s rapid growth with private capital has allowed Zuckerberg to maintain a vaunted level of control without having to expose himself very much. He exists now only as his movie double, with the reports of him as an odd, nonverbal baby-Jesus figure remaining just low murmurs. (Many technology companies are run by odd people, but Zuckerberg could be the oddest.) He, in turn, is surrounded by robotic executives: the air quickly leaves the room when Facebook President Sheryl Sandberg starts to talk; long-time tech reporter Kara Swisher could think of nothing else to call the company’s CFO, David Ebersman, other than the “quiet man” – whose job is to protect him and interpret for Zuckerberg. (The tech world is full of testy PR people, but Facebook’s top flack, Elliot Schrage, is a particularly gruesome attack dog.)
Public exposure, rather than fictional movie exposure, could be cruel – even though Zuckerberg is said to be practicing up for earnings calls. Indeed, it is hard to overstate how truly public Facebook is about to become, and how much more difficult it will be to contain the controversies – about its provenance, its financing, its privacy polices and its data thirst – that have always dogged it, and which, in the past, it has largely just gone tightlipped about.
It is now, too, on a world stage: in order to speedily reach its billion-user target, it has to grow internationally. But the company has so often and so ingenuously called itself a utility that, almost everywhere outside the US, it is looking at being regulated as one. This past summer, in an effort at business diplomacy, the company trotted Zuckerberg out to speak before the G8 (hosted by the French, among the most eager regulators) – both in a conference before the formal meeting and, then, in front of the assembled leaders. His performance, at least the public one, might be described as either charming and naive or, if you’re keen on a professional approach, other-planetary.
And advertising. It’s actually been a rather awkward conversation between Facebook and Madison Avenue. Facebook’s trillions of pages views have created something of a speculative frenzy, with every ad agency in the world bragging about its social marketing capabilities, but with almost every big brand being tepid in its response. (WPP’s Martin Sorrell suggested this fall that social media might not be such a gripping advertising medium.) As soon as the company is public, real ad numbers – instead of hundreds of millions of consumers who might, one day, pay attention to you – start to count.
On the other hand, as part of the private company “story”, they talk at Facebook about advertising in a transitional sense, of it being something they might need now, but which can be left behind as they integrate a further and deeper relationship with users and figure out new and more crafty ways to monetize what they, and only they, understand about individual behavior.
That’s, of course, the ultimate Facebook sell: Mark Zuckerberg, a true American savant – Steve Jobs, but better even (and not so nasty) – has created a wholly-owned internet, which can not only monitor behavior but can encourage it, and regulate it, and dominate so much of it that Facebook inevitably becomes the platform for modern life. Spotify, and the infuriating feature that shares all songs you play with god knows who else, is just a recent example of the Facebook plan for universal integration. This is the $100bn-and-climbing vision, which now, in the public glare, will have to walk past cagey regulators, grumpy media, issue-hungry politicians, impatient shareholders and irritated customers.
It’s a speculative dream and breathtaking power grab, which, in the end, I don’t think they’ll get away with. Granted, so far they have.