Facebook Goes Over the Top

David Murphy

Whatsapp-Murphy's-Law 20 FebIf the folks at Instagram thought all their Christmases had come at once when Facebook came calling with its chequebook in 2012, it’s difficult to imagine quite how elated the team at WhatsApp must be feeling today.

OK, WhatsApp is some way ahead of where Instagram was when Facebook bought it, boasting 450m monthly active users - Instagram had 30m – who in theory pay $0.99/69p a year after the first year, generating estimated revenues of around $20m (£14.6m) in 2013.

Even so, $19bn still seems an incredibly generous price to pay. Especially so when you consider that just last week, Rakuten bought Viber, a rival OTT messaging firm which has 300m monthly active users, for just $900m.

There is some - in fact lots - of logic to the deal. WhatsApp is strong in emerging markets where Facebook Messenger is not. And considering that Facebook already owns Instagram, it gives the social media firm an awesome digital messaging arsenal. It’s also another example of what seems to be Facebook’s philosophy, as expressed by Kirsty Styles here today when she quipped “Can’t beat ‘em? Then buy them”.

Most analysts commenting on the acquisition today are broadly positive. “Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp should come as no surprise and makes sense for both parties,” says Eden Zoller, prinicipal analyst, consumer telecoms at Ovum.
“This is a smart move for Facebook,” says Jason Mander, analyst and head of trends at GlobalWebIndex. “With Facebook having already purchased Instagram, adding WhatsApp to its portfolio puts it bang in line with current social networking trends.”

Few analysts question the price paid, but while “desperation” may be too strong a word, the amount paid does demonstrate how keen Facebook obviously was, having had a $3bn bid for SnapChat rebuffed, not to see WhatsApp bought by Google, Apple, or anyone else with deep enough pockets.

Even so, I stand firmly behind Martin Garner, SVP at CCS Insight, who says: “Facebook’s investors are unlikely to tolerate an endless spree of acquisitions at this sort of valuation.”

So is $19bn for WhatsApp bold or stupid? It’s a cop out I know, but never has the phrase “only time will tell” been more apt. If I was pushed right now though, I’d definitely be more towards the “stupid” end of the spectrum. (I realise you can read that two ways but those who know me would say it works both ways.)

The obvious question now, of course, is who will Facebook buy next? Someone in the wearables space? Beacons? Another social network? I don’t know the answer to that one, but Mr. Zuckerberg, if you’re interested in snapping up a thriving, mobile-first publishing company at the sort of multiple you just paid for WhatsApp, you know where we are.