By any account, the numbers surrounding Facebook's hotly anticipated initial public offering on Friday are historic. But the numbers are only the beginning.
Responding to growing investor demand, the company filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday to increase the target price from its initial $28 to $35 U.S. range to between $34 and $38 per share, a move that could raise upwards of $12.8 billion and value the company at $104 billion. As overwhelming as the numbers are, however — Google's IPO raised a relatively modest $1.67 billion when it went public in 2004 — they divert attention away from what comes afterward. When the dust settles, the stage will be set for a long-term, radical transformation of the company that pioneered mass-scale social media.
A publicly traded Facebook opens up significant new areas of opportunity for a company that has led a fairly charmed life since its birth in a Harvard dorm room eight years ago. Some key areas of change will likely include the following:
1. Transparency and accountability
Facebook hasn't exactly been a model of openness for most consumers and businesses that have come to rely on the service. As its user base has grown to over 900 million, it has efficiently mined the personal data freely provided by all of its new subscribers. While all that information has literally served as rocket fuel for Facebook's growth, the company hasn't always been up-front about what it does with that data, and it's repeatedly come under fire for perceived laxness in how it collects the data in the first place.
Post-IPO, Facebook will have no choice but to change its ways. While privately held companies can easily keep much of their operations hidden from public view, publicly traded organizations have no such luxury.
Shareholders will expect Facebook to be significantly more up-front about how it gathers and manages user data. They also won't tolerate the company's tendency to push the privacy envelope first — for example, changing user settings without prior consent and forcing subscribers to frequently check their accounts to ensure they're not sharing more than they had previously agreed — only to back down following user backlash.
A more mature approach to user data stewardship opens the door to better tools for both consumers as well as businesses that increasingly rely on Facebook as a pillar of their marketing efforts. It also sets the stage for evolving the service beyond its basic social media roots into a trusted business partner for a wide range of services, including retail and ecommerce.
If one of the key reasons for an IPO is to give a company access to cash to fund further growth, expect the resulting $12-plus-billion bonanza to fuel a major acceleration in Facebook's growth.
The expected influx of IPO-based funding will open up opportunities to hire engineering and marketing talent, build partnerships and, as necessary, buy out competitors. Head count will rise and the number of satellite offices worldwide will increase rapidly as Facebook more aggressively pursues talent wherever it can find it.
Beyond people, going public also allows Facebook to accelerate investments in building out its data center and network infrastructure — an often invisible competency that is critical to ensuring smooth service delivery to its ever growing and ever more demanding audience.
The flipside? Publicly traded companies are subject to layers of due diligence that prevent them from simply writing a cheque for whoever they want to buy. Facebook has been on a bit of a buying spree since April, following up its $1 billion Instagram acquisition with rapid-fire deals for customer loyalty app vendor Tagtile and social discovery outfit Glancee. Those carefree days are almost over.
Facebook has been a walled garden for its entire history. Users log into the Facebook.com website and pretty much stay within its relatively tight confines until they're done. They can't easily import information from the outside, nor can they export things like friend lists, contact information, applications and settings, or anything else they've cultivated along the way. This tight control has worked to Facebook's advantage thus far, as it has tied users more tightly to the brand and made the company less vulnerable to competitors poaching their most critical user and data assets.
As it transitions to a publicly traded company, however, Facebook risks running into a concrete wall. Investors are paying a premium based on expected future growth — growth that simply won't happen if Facebook.com remains a closed environment indefinitely. Only by adapting its technology to play nice with external partners can Facebook sustain its growth and keep shareholders happy.
For all the opportunity that going public offers this social media pioneer, the process doesn't come without risks. We'll explore how Facebook's new reality could make it vulnerable on a number of fronts, how the company can adapt, and what happens if it doesn't.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org