Is Facebook's $19 billion buy brilliant or moronic?

Snicker all you want, but the company didn't get to where it is today by being obvious, safe and boring.

By MSN Money Partner Feb 20, 2014 1:21PM
Credit: © Steve Jennings/Getty Images for MerchantCantos

Caption: Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergBy Henry Blodget, Business Insider

Facebook (FB) made a breathtaking move Wednesday, 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 percent of Facebook's overall value -- for a "messaging app."

So in the wake of the announcement, the usual chorus of keyboard pundits took to Twitter to snicker together and pronounce Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg (pictured), brain dead.

But Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion isn't a brain dead move. It's just bold. Very bold.

Like other bold moves, Facebook's WhatsApp deal could end up looking brilliant. Or moronic.

That's what makes it bold.

If it were guaranteed to end up looking brilliant, it wouldn't be bold. It would be obvious, safe, and boring. And Facebook hasn't built a service used by one-sixth of the world's population in 10 years by being obvious, safe, and boring.

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.

Here's why:

  • WhatsApp has both offensive and defensive value to Facebook. WhatsApp is the fastest-growing company in history (in terms of users). If the company's growth continues, and it can continue to "monetize" its users, it will be worth an even more mind-boggling amount of money someday. At the same time, WhatsApp's growth is gobbling up user messaging and connection time that once could have belonged to Facebook. Now those users and their time do belong to Facebook. So buying WhatsApp allows Facebook to both own "the next Facebook" and prevent "the next Facebook" from eating Facebook's lunch.
  • 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. 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 revenueless 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 preemptive acquisitions in history. Nineteen billion dollars for WhatsApp is a much bolder bet than Instagram, but it, too, could end up looking a lot smarter than most people think.

Yes, but is WhatsApp really worth $19 billion?

The short answer is: No one knows. There are some financial scenarios in which WhatsApp could end up being "worth" (in a limited financial sense) a lot more than $19 billion. There are other scenarios in which it could end up being worth a lot less. The only answerable question right now is whether WhatsApp was worth $19 billion to Facebook.

And I think the answer is yes.

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 five to 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 (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 Amazon (AMZN) and it has worked out great for Facebook so far. 

In short, Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion isn't stupid. It's just bold.

More from Business Insider

Feb 20, 2014 3:20PM
$19 billion for a company with $20 million in revenue? Sure.....sounds like a good deal to me.
Feb 20, 2014 3:35PM

Zuckerberg is a Suckerberg. One must ask themselves …can one actually buy FB users?  This could very possible be the proverbial iceberg …Yet, it really highlights what people value over say… feeding children. How many people do you think we could feed with 19 billion? How much do you value chat messages over the hungry? Something is very wrong in the world today and FB is one major element.

Feb 20, 2014 4:32PM
How much is that in Obama Dollars?
Feb 20, 2014 5:51PM

Facebook buying WhatsApp for 19 billion, "is it brain dead or brilliant":

Fed Chair Allen Greenspan,

Made a Statement Several Years Ago,

"How Can A Company Be Worth Anything When It Produces Nothing" 

Less Then a Month Later the Dot Com Industry Went Broke...

Facebook and WhatsApp is a fad, they come and they go,   BUT..

The Computer isn't a Microwave Oven...... So it Can't Make Popcorn

The average computer owner will use their computer for just that, MAKING POPCORN..

because "They Don't Know What Else To Do With It"..............and Mark Zuckerburg Knows It...

Feb 20, 2014 1:47PM
Up to this point, WhatsApp has been completely ad-free.  Gee, I wonder if FB will try to monetize it with ads?  Do they have any other monetization models?  On the surface, it appears that FB just spent $19 billion for an anticipated 1 billion new ad viewers.  Can they make $19 on each one?  Only time will tell.
Feb 20, 2014 2:01PM
"Is Facebook's $19 billion buy brilliant or moronic?"

It's reckless behavior based on far too many assumptions. If this company was nearly as valuable as some are now claiming, the Company would have went Public. It didn't. We have not seen any revenue numbers so all this talk about money per user is PURE BS.

This is eerily similar to the days of the Dot Com Boom and Bust. The only difference, our Debt levels are far Higher and the Debt to GDP ratio has doubled. Plus the FED is sitting on $4Trillion in Bogus assets.
Feb 20, 2014 11:02PM


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Feb 20, 2014 2:15PM

"This approach has worked out great for Amazon [. . .] and it has worked out great for Facebook so far."


Both issues have never returned much (if any) profit. And yesm absence of profitability has worked out great for both issues, so far. Then again, everything on earth works out great -- until it doesn't.


Just ask Bernie Madoff, Jeff Skilling, Bernie Ebbers, et al. "So far" isn't always a reliable metric on which to bank.

Feb 20, 2014 7:17PM
Money came easy to that young man so he easily pisses it away. $19 Billion for a company that had maybe $20 million in revenue in 2013 and has 55 employees. I bet Warren Buffet and Bill Gates believe the fellow got hoo-dooed!. Young people are already tired of Facebook and when they start leaving, FB will drop in value like a rock.
Feb 20, 2014 5:03PM
Facebook will be obsolete within 5 years.
Feb 20, 2014 4:52PM

Zuckerberg needs to fade away...the same as Facebook is already doing. Little Boy is burning through money quick. Personal Bankruptcy within 10 years.


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