Zuckerberg wins on triumph of hope over reality

From today, social networking site Facebook will be the most valuable US technology IPO  in the last decade.

After only eight years Mark Zuckerberg will be one of the world’s richest men, worth nearly $20 billion. Facebook will be worth $100 billion.

While no doubt Facebook’s long term employees are currently working out ways to get a holiday somewhere nice, there are some alarming things about the company which cannot go away.

The IPO’s success is not exactly based on sound business sense. Wall Street has warned that there is no way Facebook is worth what it claims. For it to be worth the sort of cash Facebook claims it will have to make some serious cash in the future.

The company made $1 billion in profit last year, which is not bad, but saying it is worth a hundred times that figure is pretty hopeful. It woud take 100 years to make the profit which the company says it is worth.

In addition, Facebook’s ad business is much less developed, and companies are already starting to notice that it is less effective than Google.

Part of the problem is that people don’t use Facebook to shop. They want to talk to their friends and show off pictures of their cats.

Facebook’s main treasure-trove is its personal data – which is a dream for advertisers. But so far it has not been able to use that information effectively. Owning one of the biggest databases of personal information in the whole world should translate into way more cash.

Another key problem for shareholders is that Zuckerberg is an enterprising upstart who acts unilaterally based on his gut. While this can work well for a start-up, Zuckerberg’s habit of billion dollar purchases of companies – like Instragram – without even talking to his board will go down like a bucket of cold sick with shareholders.

Bill Gates managed to reinvent himself into a fairly shrewd manager. Steve Jobs, who was the patron saint of autocratic tosspots, got away with it by coming up with products that people wanted. So far, Zuckerberg has come up with the timeline.

Although it will be a great day for Zuckerberg, Facebook could become the biggest internet bubble to burst as the global recession bites.

* Nick Farrell talked to the BBC World Service today about DeFaceBook – the link is here