Facebook is friending Wall Street: The Internet social network is going public in a stock offering that could value it at up to $100 billion, eight years after its computer-hacking CEO Mark Zuckerberg started the service at Harvard.
The much-anticipated status update means anyone with some cash will be able to own part of a Silicon Valley icon that quickly transformed from dorm-room startup to cultural touchstone.
If its initial public offering of stock makes enough friends among investors, Facebook will probably make its stock market debut in three or four months as one of the world’s most valuable companies. Facebook, which is based in Menlo Park, Calif., hopes to list its stock under the ticker symbol, “FB,” on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq Stock Market.
In its regulatory filing Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Facebook Inc. indicated it hopes to raise $5 billion by selling a small percentage of its shares to the public in its IPO. That would be the most for an Internet IPO, easily surpassing the $1.9 billion raised by Google Inc. in 2004. The final amount will likely change as Facebook’s bankers gauge the investor demand.
Joining corporate America’s elite would give Facebook financial clout as it tries to make its service even more pervasive and expand its global audience of 845 million users. It also could help Facebook fend off an intensifying challenge from Google, which is looking to solidify its status as the Internet’s most powerful company with a rival social network called Plus.
The intrigue surrounding Facebook’s IPO has increased in recent months and not just because the company has become a common conduit for everyone from doting grandmas to sassy teenagers to share information about their lives.
Zuckerberg, 27, has emerged as the latest in a lineage of Silicon Valley prodigies who are alternately hailed for pushing the world in new directions and reviled for overstepping their bounds. In Zuckerberg’s case, a lawsuit alleging that he stole the idea for Facebook from some Harvard classmates became the grist for a book and a movie that won three Academy Awards last year.
Even before the IPO was filed, Zuckerberg was shaping up as his generation’s Bill Gates – a geek who parlayed his love of computers into fame and fortune. Forbes magazine estimated Zuckerberg’s wealth at $17.5 billion in its most recent survey of the richest people in the U.S. A more precise measurement of Zuckerberg’s fortune will be available once the IPO is priced and provides a concrete benchmark for determining the value of his nearly 534 million Facebook shares
The IPO will also mint hundreds of Facebook employee as millionaires because they have accumulated stock at lower prices than what the shares are liked to be valued at on the open market. Facebook employed 3,200 people at the end of 2011.
Depending on how long regulators take to review Facebook’s IPO documents, the company could be making its stock market debut around the time that Zuckerberg celebrates his 28th birthday in May.
When most companies go public, they let Wall Street investment banks handle everything. That means the stock being sold is reserved for big institutional investors, shutting out the average investor. Despite speculation that Facebook would try something different, it appears the IPO will be a traditional one.
The IPO filing casts a spotlight on some of Facebook’s inner workings for the first time. Among other things, the documents reveal the amount of Facebook’s revenue, its major shareholders, its growth opportunities and its concerns about its biggest competitive threats.
The documents show, as expected, that Facebook is thriving. The company earned $668 million on revenue of $3.7 billion last year, according to the filing. Both figures nearly doubled from 2010.
“The company is a lot more profitable than we thought,” said Kathleen Smith, principal of IPO investment advisory firm Renaissance Capital.
Although she considered Facebook’s numbers “very impressive,” she said Facebook needs to talk more about where it sees its growth coming from.
“What new areas of business is it expecting to pursue beyond display ads?”
What’s not in the documents, yet, is Facebook’s market value. That figure could hit $100 billion, based on Facebook’s private valuations and the expectation that it will continue to grow at a rapid pace. Facebook also did not say what percentage of its shares it plans to sell.
Facebook heads a class of Internet startups that have been going public during the past year to some disappointing results. Among them: Daily deals company Groupon Inc., Internet radio service Pandora Media Inc. and Zynga Inc., which has built a profitable business by creating games people can play on Facebook.
Facebook stands apart, though. As it rapidly expands, people from Silicon Valley to Brazil to India use it to keep up with news from friends and long-lost acquaintances, play mindless games tending virtual cities and farms and share big news or minute details about their days. Politicians, celebrities and businesses use Facebook to connect with fans and the general public.
It’s becoming more difficult to tell whether going to Facebook is a pastime or an addiction. In the U.S., Facebook visitors spend an average of seven hours per month on the website, more than double the average of three hours per month in 2008, according to the research firm comScore Inc.
More than half of Facebook users log on to the site on any given day. Using software developed by outside parties – call it the Facebook economy – they share television shows they are watching, songs they are playing and photos of what they are wearing or eating. Facebook says 250 million photos alone are posted on its site each day.
To make money, Facebook sells the promise of highly targeted advertisements based on the information its users share, including interests, hobbies, private thoughts and relationships. Though most of its revenue comes from ads, Facebook also takes a cut from the money that apps make through its site. For every dollar that “FarmVille” maker Zynga gets for the virtual cows and crops it sells, for example, Facebook gets 30 cents.
Last year, Facebook got about $3.2 billion in advertising revenue, which accounted for 85 percent of its total. The rest came from what it calls “payments and other fees,” namely the app payments. Zynga alone accounted for 12 percent of Facebook’s revenue in 2011.
Research firm eMarketer had expected higher ad revenue – $3.8 billion – and higher overall revenue of $4.27 billion.
Analyst Debra Aho Williamson offered one reason that Facebook’s revenue is lower than she expected: its focus on the user experience. The company, she said, has been “very deliberate” about how it displays ads. There are no splashy banners plastered across users’ home pages and no intrusive video ads popping up left and right.
“Advertisers possibly want more,” she said. “They want more proof that advertising works.”
For all of Facebook’s success, the company has had its troubles. It has gone through a series of privacy missteps over the years as it has pushed users to disclose more and more information about themselves. Most recently, the company settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it exposed details about people’s private lives without getting legally required consent. And the legal fights over Facebook’s origins have been embarrassing and sometimes distracting, though Zuckerberg has consistently denied allegations that have depicted him as ruthless.
Zuckerberg has made it clear he isn’t especially keen on leading a public company. He has said many times that he prefers to focus on developing Facebook’s products and growing the site’s user base, rather than trying to hit quarterly earnings targets in an effort to keep investors happy.
In a letter included in Wednesday’s filing, Zuckerberg paints a rosy, idealistic picture of Facebook.
“Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries,” he wrote.
Zuckerberg also pledged to stay true to Facebook’s scrappy roots even on the road to becoming a multinational corporation.
“The word `hacker’ has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers,” he wrote. “In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.”
Lately, Zuckerberg has matured into the role, said Scott Kessler, a Standard & Poor’s equity analyst who follows Internet stocks.
“Clearly he is a very smart and shrewd person,” he said.
Zuckerberg has surrounded himself with other savvy executives, who are often more experienced. They include Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who helped build Google’s advertising business before Facebook lured her in 2008. Facebook’s finance chief is David Ebersman, a former executive at biotech firm Genentech.
Amid the buoyant optimism about Facebook’s prospects as a public company, some analysts see troubling parallels to the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, which turned into a devastating bust in the early 2000s. The biggest fear is that some investors will become so enamored with Facebook’s brand and brawn that they will try to buy the Facebook shares the day the company goes public with little financial analysis or recognition of the risks.
“It’s a one-day circus,” said John Fitzgibbon, founder of IPOscoop.com.
The IPOs of Zynga and LinkedIn showed that success isn’t guaranteed even for profitable companies with huge followings. Zynga’s stock is currently trading just slightly above its IPO price. LinkedIn closed at $72.37 Wednesday, far below the $122.70 record that it hit on its first trading day.
Morgan Stanley is the lead banker for the IPO. The other banks involved are JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, BofA Merrill Lynch, Barclays and Allen & Co.