Facebook was never planned to generate revenue; how is Zuckerberg a multi-billionaire?
January 29, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I feel stupid for not knowing this, but--why would anyone invest $500k in Facebook, when the website was never meant to turn a profit? (Slight spoilers inside)

After watching The Social Network twice, I am still baffled by the $500k investment capital put in by Clarion Capital's hedge fund. Obviously, Zuckerberg needs the money for more servers, more employees, etc. etc. etc., but what does the investor get out of investing in it, if Facebook was not set up to generate any profit? Zuckerberg was firmly against having any advertising on the site; there is no membership fee; what does Clarion get out of it?
posted by tzikeh to Work & Money (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Peter Thiel got an equity stake in the company and a share in any future profits. I don't know why you would think that the company was never expected to turn a profit, especially on the basis of a plot point in a movie....
posted by dfriedman at 12:54 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hedge funds do not make money by paying attention to what kids who invent something say they want to do with their business.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:55 PM on January 29, 2011 [13 favorites]

driedman, can you elaborate? I obviously missed the plot point. I guess me shorter is "how does Facebook make money?" I understand that he got a share in any future profits, but what profits did he expect? Why?
posted by tzikeh at 1:00 PM on January 29, 2011

He expected profits because it was expanding rapidly and accumulating countless users who would all go to the same website several times a day.
posted by synecdoche at 1:02 PM on January 29, 2011

synecdoche - please, again, elaborate. Countless users go to the same site several times a day.


They're not spending any money to go to that website.
posted by tzikeh at 1:05 PM on January 29, 2011

Facebook makes money mainly through advertising. Zuckerberg and Eduardo discuss this in the movie.
posted by mnemonic at 1:06 PM on January 29, 2011

"How does facebook make money?"
posted by knapah at 1:06 PM on January 29, 2011

People invested in companies like Facebook early on because to the "upside potential." It will eventually make money or get sold to someone like Microsoft/Google/etc and with that equity stake would make a boatload. It may take years to be profitable or get bought out, but if there's a chance that $500K would do better there than in other investments, they'll fund it. If they didn't see the upside they'd not invested a cent.
posted by birdherder at 1:10 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't seen the movie, but are we sure that FB was set up to not generate a profit? As far as I can figure, they sell data. $0.04 per record can add up if you have enough records. Wanna know what percentage of males from 21-25 are into Radiohead? FB can tell you.
posted by Gilbert at 1:11 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

mnemonic, I do remember their discussion about advertising, but what I remember about that discussion was the Eduardo wanted to put advertising on the website, and Zuckerberg *didn't*. Specifically because what Facebook had going for it was that it was "cool," and advertising wouldn't be "cool."
posted by tzikeh at 1:12 PM on January 29, 2011

Gilbert - it helps if you see the movie. I don't know what it does now (which is why I asked the question), but it's quite clear that Zuckerberg is not interested in the site making money. At all.
posted by tzikeh at 1:13 PM on January 29, 2011

Forget the movie. The movie is fiction. Don't reference your confusion on Clarion's investment to the movie any more so than you would with gun control to Bambi.
posted by mnemonic at 1:15 PM on January 29, 2011 [9 favorites]

Data sales, potential future advertising, potential future sale.
You should maybe stop sitting on the thread and let some more answers come through. Your responses kind of discourage further input because you're essentially shutting people down who are actually answering.
posted by elpea at 1:15 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think Justin Timberlake says the first time he meets Mark Zuckerberg that he shouldn't monetize too soon. Key word, soon.

No one ever said Facebook wasn't meant to make money, so get that out of your head. Despite the film asserting that Zuckerberg doesn't care about money, I don't think you become a billionaire without caring about it a little bit.
posted by malapropist at 1:17 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

elpea - I'll stop sitting on the thread; thanks for the advice. I was mostly trying to get people to elaborate, because I don't understand it.
posted by tzikeh at 1:18 PM on January 29, 2011

So...you realize that movie does not equal real life, right? And even if facebook was initially set up as just a fun site through which to share information, that is definitely not the case now. I can assure you that Facebook's goal now is to make $$$$$, and currently Facebook makes oodles and oodles of money through advertising and a tiny bit through people buying those facebook points. Any investors would make a share of that advertising money.
posted by echo0720 at 1:19 PM on January 29, 2011

tzikeh, the movie is a work of fiction, not a documentary. It is not all that closely based on Ben Mezrich's non-fiction book, so I wouldn't necessarily assume that that conversation happened as the script shows it (it's a long time since I read Mezrich's book so don't remember what it says about that).

Even if that conversation did happen exactly as it was depicted, hedge funds do not get rich by listening to what uninformed and non-financially-savvy inventors say about their products in early meetings. Having known several people who got capital investments for their start-ups, the end result is almost invariably that the investors will prevail over the creators when it comes to choices about potential profit-making, and the investors know that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:19 PM on January 29, 2011

Oh wait, sorry, just realized that your question must have been about the plot of the movie, not real life.
posted by echo0720 at 1:20 PM on January 29, 2011

Specifically because what Facebook had going for it was that it was "cool," and advertising wouldn't be "cool."

Whatever the movie said about what Zuckerberg allegedly thought was cool is irrelevant, given that Facebook does in fact have ads, and that all the third-party app developers (e.g. Farmville) are willing to pony up for all the eyeballs on Facebook.
posted by rtha at 1:22 PM on January 29, 2011

I haven't seen the money, but it's easy to see how Facebook makes money - ads. According to Facebook, they have 'over 500 million active users' - that's a lot of eyeballs. Factor in the impressive amount of information they have access to about all those users (where they vacation, the things they 'like', their age, their gender, the age, gender, interests of all their 'friends', etc) - not only do they have a lot of 'eyeballs', but they know a ridiculous amount of information about the people using their site, they have the ability to provide advertisers with extremely granular targeting. I'm guessing that's why the company is so valuable, and why (if they're not already) they'll make a lot of money. Think about where Google makes their money (advertising) - it's not that different a model (targeted advertising to a lot of users), just a different approach.
posted by drobot at 1:26 PM on January 29, 2011

(I meant 'haven't seen the movie', although it is true that I haven't seen the money, either)
posted by drobot at 1:26 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think Zuckerberg wanted to delay advertising to keep the "cool" factor longer, in order to drive up membership. I also think he was more motivated to have facebook take over the planet than to turn a profit, of course one brings the other. The hedge fund saw huge money making potential and it wasn't like Zuckerberg wanted to turn it into a charity, just immediately turning a profit wasn't his first priority.
posted by whoaali at 1:27 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

just realized that your question must have been about the plot of the movie, not real life

Well, it's the same in a movie--investors don't really listen to the idealistic bullshit founders spout. See the Wall Street sequel, frex.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:31 PM on January 29, 2011

Zuck didn't want to put advertising on it that early, because he was right. If there were ads on it when it was just at a handful of colleges, a competitor would have been able to beat them with similar offerings w/o ads. Eventually the company that beat FB would start having advertising because they're there to make money.

The real value of facebook, like Gilbert says is in the value of targeting its messaging (ads) based on user provided information. If you post to your wall you're thinking about buying a new car, that's worth money to the car companies. You tie in the other things Facebook knows about you (and that many people like you will allow them to share) and you have more than you than just your basic demo information. Facebook can tell Nissan that he last posted a mile from a Nissan dealership. It is truly exciting for marketers because people -- especially younger people -- are so willing to share so much about themselves. If Facebook doesn't implode upon itself or "the next big thing" kills it, your profile will know more about you that you do about yourself. It will be interesting/scary when FB suggests to you that you have a slice of pizza for lunch at a place you used to go to all the time but stopped going to. It will be like they're reading your mind. Because they kind of are.

And that's why people line up to invest in FB even though it hasn't turned a nickel of profit yet.

posted by birdherder at 1:31 PM on January 29, 2011

I had someone from Nielson Skype with a management class I took about a year ago. Long story short: you are the product. Nielson takes all of your activity and profile data from Facebook, packages it, andthen sells that information to other companies. Facebook is not free; you're paying for it with your personal information and usage data. Some companies will pay a lot for that information.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:32 PM on January 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

"And that's why people line up to invest in FB even though it hasn't turned a nickel of profit yet."

According to this, Facebook is profitable:

Facebook isn't a public company, so isn't required to disclose any financials to the public, so this is conjecture and based on possibly unreliable sources, but the article seems reasonable to me.
posted by drobot at 1:38 PM on January 29, 2011

In addition to what others have said, consider that simply selling the company based on perceived future value is a viable exit strategy.

Many, many businesses open with the express purpose of generating a foothold in a marketplace that someone else will turn into a revenue stream.

Imagine you built a restaurant on the most heavily trafficked corner in your town, and you became known for offering amazing food with incredible word-of-mouth. Are you profitable? Who cares? You can sell your restaurant to someone that thinks they can make it profitable. Someone may not know how to create a brand new space with a cool name and good lighting ... but they know a hell of a lot about how to buy and sell food to an existing customer base.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:49 PM on January 29, 2011

(my post got munged and your quote, which was supposed to italicized got lost, yet the rest of my post made it italicized. I really must preview)
mnemonic, I do remember their discussion about advertising, but what I remember about that discussion was the Eduardo wanted to put advertising on the website, and Zuckerberg *didn't*. Specifically because what Facebook had going for it was that it was "cool," and advertising wouldn't be "cool."
Also, post preview, as Sidhedevil points out, The Social Network is a work of fiction based on real events. It wasn't like Zuckerberg was on set and approved the script.

And, tzikeh, I think you're conflating things that happened in the early life of "thefacebook.com" and the current company together.

Gilbert - it helps if you see the movie. I don't know what it does now (which is why I asked the question), but it's quite clear that Zuckerberg is not interested in the site making money. At all.

In the film Zuck's character was not interesting in making money from the site and that "money isn't important" to him in those deposition scenes. Very early on he did thefacebook.com for the notoriety and to show he could do it. Then it became abundantly clear it could actually make money. Our own mathowie started this very site as a hobby and didn't dream one day becoming the mogul that runs MetaFilter Networks, Inc.

Today, Zuckerberg has a net worth measured in the billions. So spending millions on making a point is like you or I spending $5 for a Metafilter novelty account with a cute name. For a guy with more money than the GNP of some countries to say money isn't important doesn't come across as sincere. Sure he's giving a large portion of his wealth away (which is nice) but he won't have that fortune if he wasn't passionate about monetizing the shit out of Facebook.
posted by birdherder at 1:51 PM on January 29, 2011

tzikeh: I don't know what it does now (which is why I asked the question), but it's quite clear that Zuckerberg is not interested in the site making money. At all.

I think it's still not clear if this question is about real-life Facebook and real-life Zuckerberg or about the movie The Social Network.

If we're talking about real life, then consider this 2007 interview with Mark Zuckerberg in the Financial Times:
FT: You’ve talked about building the site and building a series of tools around the site but making money from the site also has to be important. Where are you right now in terms of monetizing this thing that you’ve built? How are you doing it now and what is coming down the road?

MR ZUCKERBERG: It’s largely advertising based, split across a number of different revenue lines and types of things that we do. We have a sales team that goes out and works with a lot of the biggest brands and we build campaigns for them that consist of sponsored events and stories inside news feed to just different sponsored presences and groups on the site.

Then we have a self-service product called flyers which lets anyone say I want to advertise to this demographic. I’m willing to pay this much. And we have a relationship with Microsoft. We actually do a fair amount of revenue from all of those things but it’s still really early on and we’re figuring out how to bring a lot of these things together.

And I think you’ll see some interesting things in that area in the next like three to six months. And I can talk about the specific things that we’re doing now but I think there are going to be some interesting things in the next period of time.
And, that was three (nearly four) years ago. Things have only progressed further in this direction. So, I don't think it's quite fair to say that Zuckerberg is "not interested in the site making money. At all." If you want a real example of that kind of mindset, look up Craig Newmark of craigslist.
posted by mhum at 1:59 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing about these social sites is that there is a huge advantage to being the leader. People sign on to a site primarily because their friends are already on it, so once you get to be the top you naturally have a huge competitive advantage. The fictionalized Zuckerberg knew this and was willing to do whatever it took to get to that position, which meant eschewing anything annoying like ads that detract from the experience, knowing that once you are the big dog and you have everyone captive you can then monetize the hell out of them and nobody will leave because all their friends are still there.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:31 PM on January 29, 2011

tzikeh: "Zuckerberg was firmly against having any advertising on the site; there is no membership fee; what does Clarion get out of it?"

I doubt that Zuckerberg was truly against profits, but even if true, Clarium could resort to voting him out with their votes, or to the courts on due diligence claims. Facebook wasn't set up as a non-profit, you realize.

But more likely, the hedge fund either wasn't paying close attention to a minor half million dollar investment, or figured they could persuade Zuckerberg with money the way they do with every other Harvard student. Once you have a massive user base, people will start coming to you with opportunities.
posted by pwnguin at 3:40 PM on January 29, 2011

Zuckerberg allowed himself and his site to be persuaded by the numbers. If it wasn't ads, it would have to be some other way to pay the bills. Having a multimillion user website doesn't come cheap. Investments aren't usually no-strings-attached deals, especially for net companies after the bubble burst a decade ago. Infusing the site with half a million dollars probably came with a negotiation to prove the site could turn a profit at some point. I'm just speculating of course, since I have no idea what the actual paperwork said. Huge growth in userbase and mainstream awareness/influence means it was able to attract plenty of other investment and advertising interest, turning Zuckerberg into a multibillionaire.

The movie has some basis in real life, but it was probably also just counting on the audience to understand a Harvard-educated entrepreneur wasn't terribly tied to his anti-advertising stance in the face of enormous personal profit and power and glossed over the change of heart.
posted by asciident at 4:16 PM on January 29, 2011

Beside the revenue from ads and selling information, FB has an intangible value that is not monetized but is accounted in their valuation: their brand. By virtue of their success in signing up people; they accumulate a lot of trust from their users. This trust may not be implicitly vested in FB, but FB is the conduit to people relationship with each other. The value of this data is not tapped to the fullest extent, but as birdherder's example, FB still have many opportunity to mine this wealth. Here are a few other things I think they can do:

1. Sell your data packaged for different purposes: your preference to advertisers and marketer; your habit and character to creditors; your relationship and status to match-makers... there is a lot of utilities in such a rich data set if only someone know how to tap it.

2. Sell influence. So far, FB attempts of influence users have not been well received; but it can be done more tactfully. User don't like in-your-face interruptions, but I can see FB try and shape your consumption of news posts. It may try to favor one friend's posting over another, or create relevant "side menu" contents based on user's interaction. Already, it has create its own search bar; which open up a new way to tweak what user see. More customized services will come.

3. Standardize user data. FB is the pioneer in massive collection of user info; and if they can aggregate and standardize this information, it can become a platform for measuring users. It may be able to answer questions like: who will be the next president; or what kind of product will be popular in Spring. This has a lot of value to any investors (if FB doesn't go into investing themselves).

The main head-wind for FB is the central dilemma of all social network websites: in order to extract value from their user, they must violate their users' trust one-way or another. Success is self-defeating in a way. It is unknown where that balance is; how far FB can convince its user to continue to trust it.
posted by curiousZ at 4:31 PM on January 29, 2011

The movie's fictional.

In real life, people are almost never against profits.

Mark Zuckerberg, as history has shown, is soundly in the majority on that matter.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:39 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The ads make money for Facebook, but the real cash-cow (as mentioned) is the data-mining. Corporations love to know who is and isn't using and/or liking their respective products.
posted by bardic at 9:40 PM on January 29, 2011

I am told (from a former boss) that Facebook has some of the worst click-through rate of any sites that attempt to work off advertising. This is 2 year old information, but I doubt it has changed much. So my guess is still with data.
posted by Gilbert at 11:31 PM on January 29, 2011

A good rule of thumb is the following: if you can't tell what the website is selling, you are the product.

In other words, advertising. Have you visited Facebook... ever? It's lousy with ads.
posted by telegraph at 6:21 AM on January 30, 2011

Even within the context of the movie's story, Zuckerberg isn't opposed to earning money, he's just longer-sighted about the process and more fixated on the cool things that Facebook could do. Sean Parker inspired him because Napster truly was a revolutionary project, even though it's more famous for reducing revenue than increasing revenue. Zuckerberg married that transformative aspects of a Napster with the profitability of any other internet startup where the ultimate goal is to data mine and advertise.

Compare what Zuckerberg did with other, uncool startups that tried to monetize too soon. They sold a few ads but then they collapse. Zuckerberg was crazy like a fox to wait until FB had become a part of so many people's lies before putting in all the ads and such.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:44 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

My impression was that Zuckerberg didn't want to put ads on it while it was still gaining market share because that would make it not cool. His vision was to make it cool/big first before trying to monetize it because if it were obviously commercial that would hinder its widespread adoption.

But I went home and read two books about Facebook immediately after watching the movie so I don't know how much that impression is from the movie alone vs. how much was from the books I read about it that night.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:06 PM on January 30, 2011

"wait until FB had become a part of so many people's lies"

Best Freudian slip typo ever. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 11:10 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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