Two pieces of business news announced this week provide a convenient frame through which to view our dysfunctional and distorted economy. The first (which has attracted tremendous attention), is Facebook's blockbuster $19 billion acquisition of instant messaging provider WhatsApp. The second (which few have noticed) is the horrific earnings report issued by Texas-based retail chain Conn's. While these two developments don't seem to have much in common, together they shed some very unflattering light on where we stand economically.
Given the size and extravagance of the Facebook deal, it may go down as one of those transactions that define an era (think AOL and Time Warner). Facebook paid $19 billion for a company with just 55 employees, little name recognition, negligible revenues, and little prospects to earn much in the future. For the same money the company could have bought American Airlines and Dunkin' Donuts, and still have had $2 billion left over for R&D. Alternatively they could have used the money to lock in more than $1 billion in annual revenue through an acquisition of any one of the numerous large cap oil producing partnerships. Instead they chose a company that is in the business of giving away a valuable service for free. Come again?
Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook, is not your typical corporate CEO. Through a combination of technological smarts, timing, luck, and questionable business ethics, he became a billionaire before most of us bought our first cars. And in the years since social media became the buzzword of the business world, Wall Street has been falling over backward to funnel money into the hot sector. As a result, it may be that Zuckerberg looks at real money the way the rest of us look at Monopoly money. It also helps that a large portion of the acquisition is made with Facebook stock, which is also of dubious value.
But even given this highly distorted perspective, it's still hard to figure out why Facebook would pay the highest price ever paid for a company per employee - $345 million (more than four times the old record of $77 million per employee, set last year when Facebook bought Instagram). The popular talking point is that the WhatsApp has gained users (450 million) faster than any other social media site in history, faster even than Facebook itself. Based on its rate of growth, the $42 per user acquisition cost does not seem so outrageous. But WhatsApp gained its users by giving away a service (text messaging) for which cellular carriers charge up to $10 or $20 per month. It's very easy to get customers when you don't charge them, it's much harder to keep them when you do.