Valuations Schmaluations – Chasing the Wrong Thing

Photo thanks to Mr. Thomas on Flickr!

You can’t escape Facebook news these days. Next week’s nationwide premiere of ‘The Social Network’ – a highly fictionalized account of the company’s founding – has focused the lens of the media squarely on the social networking giant. I’ve read through in-depth profiles on founder Mark Zuckerberg, leaked log files and IMs from his days at Harvard, and a few financial projections on Facebook’s worth.

While all of those pieces were at least mildly interesting, the last topic was the one that most grabbed my attention. How much is Facebook worth? It depends who you ask.

Forbes says $23 billion. Sharepost says $26 billion. And Financial Times says $33 billion.

Those lofty numbers certainly jump off the page, but do they make Facebook a successful company?

In the technology world, success can sometimes be a hard thing to define. Profit has always been the best measuring stick for true success. After all, the reason almost all companies get into business is to make money. It seems simple enough. However, today the business model for most startups looks something like this: build/create something awesome, get users, figure out how to monetize or sell to the highest bidder.

Monetization is often low on the priority list and success is too often measured in users, followers, or fans, not dollars.

Certainly, it takes time to properly monetize a service on the web. Amazon, for instance, didn’t start turning a profit until 2001, 6 years after they launched. The wait was well worth it for them.

But was Amazon a ‘success’ in, say, 1998? Not at all.

In Facebook’s case, they are pulling in revenue. Since they are a private company there’s no way to know all the numbers, but reports have projected that they are making over $1 billion in ad revenue.

Don’t let that number fool you either though. Facebook has taken almost a billion dollars in venture capital alone. And 500 million users requires an awful lot of overhead.

As David Heinemeier Hansson wrote: “Facebook has been around for seven years. It has 500 million users. If you can’t figure out how to make money off half a billion people in seven years, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re unlikely to ever do.”

So while the wild popularity of companies like Facebook and the billions that they are said to be worth are nice, the numbers aren’t real. Headline-grabbing valuations are not indicators of success at all. They are just ‘Monopoly money.’ Somebody can say your company is worth $1B dollars but unless you are selling for that figure or bringing in that amount in profits it is all just fantasy money.

If you step away from the online world for a second, it helps to clarify how ridiculous some of these valuations are.

Let’s look at an overly simplified example of two coffee shops:

Coffee Shop A – 800 people per day with an average of $0.20 profit per customer

Coffee Shop B –  300 people per day with an average of $0.75 profit per customer

It’s clear to anybody who can make a couple quick calculations that Coffee Shop B is the more profitable and more successful company. Coffee Shop A might be more popular and maybe it has really cool events and a great location, but it isn’t monetizing nearly as well as Coffee Shop B.

If these were two Internet startups, things would end up backwards. Coffee Shop A would get all the buzz. You’d read about it on Techcrunch. All the ‘cool kids’ would be talking about it.  Some ‘expert’ would compare the two and choose the hip, more popular one. Then the expert would come up with a ridiculous method of assigning a dollar value to each of the users. Projections would be made and suddenly  Coffee Shop A is a billion dollar company. This is why you read headlines like “A $65 billion dollar value for MySpace?” (2007).

An inflated valuation figure is not ‘success.’ A million users is not ‘success.’ They may end up as by-products of success but if you are chasing after followers instead of dollars, you are doing something terribly wrong.